Migration and violent extremism: a chain of false links?

Prejudices about migrants’ nationality, race and religion create tenuous ties to terror.

Two themes have been central to global security debates over the past few years: migration and violent extremism. These two phenomena are happening at the same time and are consequently often conflated, but are they really related?

In East Africa, there is yet no empirical evidence that confirms any direct link between migration and violent extremism, says Dr Simon Nyambura, director of the Intergovernmental Agency on Development’s Center of Excellence for Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism. He says when taken within the context of the masses of people migrating, ‘those who engage in violent extremism are statistically insignificant’.

This assertion, at a time when populist discourse attempts to suggest that any and all migrants from communities affected by terrorism are themselves terrorists, is important. It doesn’t deny that some migrants may engage in activities relating to violent extremism, but it clarifies that the actions of a few individuals should not be conflated with the whole.

Nyambura was speaking at a recent technical workshop on migration and countering violent extremism convened by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). The workshop is part of ongoing applied policy research being carried out by the ISS that aims to improve policies and practices on both issues.

Anti-immigrant sentiments suggesting that the recent rise in forced migration is, at least partly, responsible for violent extremism are not being effectively countered by facts, research has shown. A lot of these sentiments are rooted in stereotypes and prejudice. Effective responses need to move away from these generalisations, and focus on the facts that explain these dynamics.

The actual relationship between migration and violent extremism remains largely unexplored

Attempts to understand both migration and violent extremism through a global lens have largely ignored issues relating to xenophobia and racism, losing sight of key facts and nuances needed to guide action. However, some critical conversations have begun to confront the emerging realities of migration and violent extremism. These must be guided by evidence over rhetoric.

What we know so far is that conflict, instability and repression are driving many people away from their communities. Dr Khalid Koser, executive director of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund, notes that it is critical to understand ‘migration as a consequence, not a cause, of fragility’.

Indeed, in Africa – from Northern Nigeria across the continent to Somalia – some people, dreading continued insecurity and terrorism, are leaving their homes to seek (and hopefully find) refuge elsewhere. The majority of Africans forced to move are internally displaced and/or settle in neighbouring countries, while others travel further afield, to other parts of Africa, to Europe, the Middle East and the Americas.

This is not unique to Africa. Indeed, over the past six years, with increasing instability in the Syrian peninsula and the rise of Daesh (commonly dubbed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS or just the Islamic State), there has been a mass exodus from Syria.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that about 5.1 million Syrians have fled the country and are now refugees. The majority of Syrian refugees are currently in neighbouring countries (specifically Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey), while just over one 10th have fled to Europe. Approximately 6.5 million are internally displaced.

Attempts to understand migration and extremism haven’t taken xenophobia and racism into account

At the same time, there has been significant migration within and out of Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, owing, in part, to volatility in some parts of those countries. The people moving include victims and witnesses to atrocities and acts of terrorism in search of peace, stability and a better future – for many, just a future.

However, beyond this, and without detailed studies that include interviews with migrants on their reasons for leaving, the actual relationship between migration and violent extremism, particularly from a causal point of view, remains largely unexplored.

There is also a dearth of research into links between migrating communities and their involvement in violent extremism. It is this latter issue that is most contentious and has been used in populist and nationalist rhetoric geared to rejecting inward migration.

The best policies and practices are ones rooted in evidence and informed by experience. Building that evidence base is key. Mass migration and violent extremism must be examined separately and in conjunction. Both are important, and both require careful thought and action.

Ottilia Anna Maunganidze, Head, Special Projects, ISS Pretoria

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Picture: WikiMedia

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