In the past several months, four million Syrians have poured into Europe and surrounding countries, fleeing conflict back home. Now, a debate is raging in the U.S. about whether we should accept more refugees than the 10,000 President Obama has promised to resettle. Opponents of resettlement point to concerns that if we accept more refugees, the U.S. could unwittingly be putting itself at risk by allowing potential extremists into the country. In light of these concerns, it is of vital importance that we remember that the national security risks in not accepting refugees far outweigh the risks of welcoming them into the country.
A 2013 study by Daniel Milton, Megan Spencer, and Michael Findley found that the location of resettlement for refugees is critical in determining whether refugees would be susceptible to to extremism. The study found that refugees placed in countries that had historic rivalries with their countries of origin were more at risk of becoming radicalized than refugees settled elsewhere. As the Middle East has long had interstate rivalry and conflict, moving refugees as far from the areas of conflict as possible must be strongly considered.
Refugee camps are fertile ground for breeding extremism. The generally squalid conditions in the camps provide terrorists organizations with convincing propaganda for recruiting. The camps also are easy places to hide within, allowing terrorist recruits ample space to carry out their efforts with very little oversight. Therefore if our response to the refugee crisis is to encourage massive refugee camps, we may unwittingly be fostering training camps for the next generation of terrorists.
Concerns about security and refugees are not completely unfounded. The same study found that Western countries did face some security risks in accepting refugees. Yet the U.S. is in a far more advantageous position than other Western nations. Without a contiguous land border, and being so far away from the conflict, the U.S. is able to be selective about which refugees it admits.
The screening process for refugee admissions is already rigorous. A group of former security and diplomatic officials recently wrote an open letter to the Obama administration arguing that the U.S. could accept as many as 100,000 refugees. A Department of Homeland Security official stated that there is no evidence that refugees accepted into the U.S. are more likely to commit terrorism than anyone else in the country. In fact, there have been no recorded terrorist attacks committed by refugees. The U.S. has admitted 1.5 million migrants from the Middle East since September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks that have occurred since 9/11 have been committed either by American natives or non-refugee immigrants.
Although there are some valid security concerns about admitting more refugees, it must be remembered that keeping refugees at arm’s length carries its own security risks. When we fail to provide refugees with the opportunity to resume normal, productive lives, we contribute to the hopelessness and alienation that really does breed terrorism. Restricting the flow of refugees to a trickle will give Americans a short-term sense of security but it risks creating the very dangers we are so anxious to avoid.
Hampson is a research associate at the Niskanen Center where he focuses on defense reform and foreign policy.