Refugees and 'the true terrorism danger'

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Daniel Byman (Slate) has an interesting article called "Five things to know about the Paris attack," and there's much there that seems quite right to me. But I was struck by this passage (paragraph break added):

Closing Europe's doors[ to refugees] would be a mistake. ISIS wants supporters to come to Iraq and Syria to fight: It is not sending them out disguised as refugees. Indeed, it considers those fleeing its territory to be enemies: They are voting with their feet against living under ISIS's caliphate, and indeed prefer to live with infidels. It has denounced their flight as "a dangerous major sin."

The true terrorism danger is that the refugees are not cared for or are welcomed briefly in a fit of sympathy and then scorned and repressed. That would transform the refugees from a humanitarian tragedy to a security threat.

Now I agree that there are many dangers, not just to the refugees but to the world, with having people stranded in refugee camps for years. And while the Islamic State might be sending some supporters out disguised as refugees, I expect that the refugees are mostly, and disproportionately, hostile to the Islamic State, which in many instances has helped lead to their becoming refugees. Moreover, trying to help those fleeing war and persecution is a noble tradition in the West (one that my family, Soviet immigrants who came to the United States on a refugee visa, benefited from). On balance, I think this tradition has helped the West in many ways.

At the same time, note what the Slate article's argument seems to be: Let in the refugees, and then you'd better treat them well—or else they might become "a security threat." That, after all, is what the article says is "the true terrorism danger."

Nor is avoiding this terrorism danger so simple. "Not cared for" and "scorned and repressed" are pretty mushy standards. In any free country, refugees will face some difficulties and some tension with some locals. Existing citizens might resent the extra government spending going to refugees. Refugees will sometimes have a hard time finding jobs, whether for bad reasons (e.g., dislike of immigrants) or sensible reasons (e.g., the immigrants' skills don't readily adapt to their new country, some immigrants have a hard time learning the language, and so on).

Likewise, what the host country might see as protected free speech (e.g., blasphemy or criticism of Islam) might come across as "scorn" to some refugees. And what the host country might see as protection of human rights of some refugees—e.g., trying to assure that women and girls are treated according to the host country's legal and cultural standards—could appear to be "repress[ion]" to other refugees.

Indeed, it's possible that, the more the country talks up its multiculturalist credentials, and the more of a welcome it offers to refugees, the more refugees will expect of it. A change of government that leads to a modest change of policies might then come across as scorn and repression, precisely because so much "care" and acceptance was promised. Likewise when some scandal leads to newfound concern about some aspect of the refugees' cultural practices.

So let's return to that last sentence I quoted. Say the "true terrorism danger" is indeed that, after Western countries "welcome[]" refugees, some error on the part of those countries will lead those refugees to become "a security threat."

One possible way of preventing that terrorism danger is to make sure that no such errors are made and that the countries remain constantly welcoming and sympathetic. Another, of course, is to insure yourself against the ever-present risk that some errors—conduct that some (it only takes some) refugees see as "scorn[]" and "repress[ion]"—pose by not admitting the potential "security threat" refugees in the first place.

Again, I think the refugee question is complicated in many ways. But the more we have to worry about treating refugees up to the standards that the refugees will be told to expect, so they don't become a "security threat," the harder the case for "sympath[etic]" action becomes.

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