Without Safe Passage, We Leave Refugees at Mercy of Extremists

Refugees are vulnerable to exploitation by extremist groups at 10 risk ‘hot spots’ along the migration route, a new report from U.K.-based counter-extremism organization Quilliam has found. Nikita Malik, lead author of the report, explains their research.

Written by Nikita Malik Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Migrants stand in a hall at a detention center in Karareem, near Misrata, Libya on Sept. 25, 2016. AP/Manu Brabo

On their long, dangerous journey to find refuge in Europe, many refugees and migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa pass through the Libyan town of Qatrun near the border with Niger.

There, some of them must pay smugglers up to $560 for passage to northern Libya, where many hope to take boats to Europe. But ISIS offers free passage to those willing to join the extremist organization.

Terrorist organizations are able to provide a degree of security during the journey, preying on refugees when they are at their most vulnerable – both physically and mentally – given the notorious danger and difficulty of crossing the Sahara Desert.

Quilliam has mapped out these points of vulnerability to terrorist groups for refugees at each stage of their harrowing journey. We have identified 10 “risk hot spots” in conflict zones, camps and urban centers along the migration route, destination countries and beyond. In doing so, we have produced the first report to examine the relationship between young asylum seekers and extremism.

One of these risks is the exhausting financial duress that refugees encounter. Often, it is this financial need that extremist groups exploit, either by paying for the journeys of refugees to create a sense of “debt” and loyalty to the organization, or working with smugglers and human traffickers to indoctrinate individuals fleeing conflict during their journeys.

To those that reach Libya’s Mediterranean coast, ISIS offers potential recruits up to $1,000 to join the organization. This risk continues until the final stage of their journey across the Mediterranean, as ISIS has been known to prey on the 37,500 or more refugees awaiting transportation to Italy.

These numbers are likely to increase as border controls on the “Eastern route” to Europe, via Greece and the Balkans, become more stringent, meaning that black market routes involving human traffickers flourish.

These particular vulnerabilities are reinforced by the fact that the journey into Europe may perhaps be the most dangerous for unaccompanied minors, with up to 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children disappearing upon arrival in Europe, many of whom are thought to have fallen into the hands of the very same criminal organizations that brought them to the continent.

Children are often particularly advantageous to smugglers and traffickers, given that the penalties and fines for minors are lower, and therefore children are more convenient to use as captains for smuggling boats. Given the links between some smugglers and extremist organizations, children crossing open seas and international borders are vulnerable to coercion, violence and extremist indoctrination.

Where we fail to offer safe routes for refugees, we leave the door open for radicalization.

Extremist organizations also operate within destination countries to infiltrate and radicalize refugee communities under the guise of providing aid, using opportunities to preach and proselytize among refugees.

ISIS is clearly aware of the value of refugee routes for the purposes of recruitment and for exporting their operatives into Europe. Abu Arhim al-Libim, an ISIS propagandist, noted, “if this was even partially exploited and developed strategically, pandemonium could be wrought.” Aside from potentially facilitating access to Europe for ISIS fighters, the suspicion created by the mere possibility is likely to increase xenophobic and anti-refugee sentiment.

We must allow refugees to speak of these dangers in order to build resilience to extremism.

We recommend that all U.K. public officials employed by agencies who come into contact with vulnerable refugees undergo training to equip them with the skills to properly document and report refugee experiences of extremist groups. This “Safeguarding and Resilience against Extremism” (SRE) training should be designed to better understand the human rights violations refugees are likely to have experienced, including the harms, abuse and exploitation they have encountered and escaped. It should also enable officials to recognize the range of behavioral problems that refugees may exhibit as a consequence of these experiences.

These issues are especially likely to impact unaccompanied minors, pregnant women and those who are victims of torture, abuse and mental health issues. Refugees should, therefore, themselves be engaged in the development of the SRE training to ensure that it truly reflects their experiences. We must focus on ensuring children and young people are properly safeguarded, and that they are able to access good quality education and health.

By empowering refugees to have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, we can prevent them from being at the mercy of others.

Access the full report, Refuge: Pathways of Youth Fleeing Extremism, on Quilliam’s website.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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