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Reframing Threats from Migrants in Europe

13 Dec 2021
Short Read by Graig R. Klein

Since 2011 the global refugee population has steadily increased each year. Traditionally, refugees were associated with suffering, despair, and humanitarian support, but recently there is a significant growth in the securitisation of refugees and related policy and political discourse. As a result, fears and threat perception of refugees bringing crime and violence can overpower desires to provide safety and assistance. Examples of this were rampant as Syrians refugees fled civil war and ISIS to be met with skepticism and hostility across much of Europe in the mid-2010s. Similar rhetoric and fears have been applied in the U.S., Germany, the EU more broadly to Afghan refugees who were frantically fleeing the Taliban. Haitian refugees flocking to the U.S.-Mexico border also triggered securitisation discourse and perceived threat.

In this context, the securitisation discourse frames the refugee as the source or threat of violence. This is particularly true of the relationship between refugees and terrorism. But this overlooks the conditions refugees enter in host-countries. In other words, while securitisation discourse associates refugees with an increased threat of terrorism in host-countries, could the increased threat instead come from within host-countries? My new research says yes.

Others’ research shows that pre-existing ethnic or demographic tensions in host-countries, or when refugees’ integration is inhibited by legal and social institutions, the risk of terrorism increases. My research shifts our attention away from these formal or institutional processes to explore how individuals’ attitudes about having foreign-born neighbours shapes the risk of terrorism when refugees enter a host-country. I specifically analyse domestic terrorism because host-country nationals, and not refugees, can commit this type of reactionary violence in response to changes in refugee flow and perceived threats.

My findings are based on statistical analyses of refugee flows, domestic terrorism, and neighbourhood demographic preferences in a global sample of countries from 1995-2014. As expected, during refugee inflows, individuals’ acceptance of foreign-born neighbours plays a significant role in changing a host-country’s risk of domestic terrorism. The larger the percentage of a host-country population that prefers to not have foreign-born neighbours, the greater the likelihood of domestic terrorism when refugees enter the country. If this conditioning effect is omitted from the analysis, I find that refugee inflows tend to not impact the risk of domestic terrorism.

In this Perspective, I apply the lessons learned from my research on refugees and terrorism to the current migrant crisis in Belarus. Although refugees and migrants are definitionally different, similar securitisation frames and discourse, and threat perception political rhetoric have been applied to the thousands of migrants trapped on the border between Belarus and the European Union (EU)[i]

To analyse the impact this migrant flow could have on domestic terrorism risk in Belarus’ EU neighbours, I replicate my original statistical analyses using newly released data from European Values Survey to measure host-country attitudes about foreign-born neighbours. I substitute refugee data with government reports of the number of migrants who have already crossed, attempted to cross, and have been pushed back from Belarus’ borders with Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. I find that the migrant influx, so feared in much of the political discourse, poses little direct threat to national security. At least in terms of domestic terrorism risk. But the conditions the migrants enter, changes this. Of the three EU border countries, individuals’ preference to not have foreign-born neighbours is highest in Lithuania and consequently, Lithuania faces the highest increased risk of domestic terrorism if there is a mass influx of the migrants in Belarus.

Background: Migrant Crisis in Belarus

In summer 2021, migrants began arriving in Belarus in large numbers. Latvia and Lithuania quickly requested European assistance in maintaining security along their Belarussian border, which was provided in July by the European Boarder and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) deploying border guards. The influx of migrants continued into the fall. The majority come from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Many EU member states accuse Belarus of encouraging migrants to come by increasing direct flights from Middle East hubs to Minsk and reducing visa entry requirements. Once in Belarus, many were provided government assistance in crossing the EU border, including the army allegedly cutting holes in Polish border fencing and ushering migrants through.

The situation quickly escalated with EU eastern border member-states raising fears of the security threat the migrant influx would pose. As the number of undocumented crossings and the size of the migrant camps along the Belarussian border grew, security measures were heightened. Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland each declared a state of emergency in their border regions.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s accused Belarus of state terrorism, painting Belarussian actions and the forced migrants themselves as threatening. His comments reflect historical and contemporary fears of weaponised migrants.

In line with Poland’s fear, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen described the situation to U.S. President Joe Biden as “…a hybrid attack. Not a migration crisis…”.  Similar fears led to accusations against the EU’s eastern neighbours during the Syrian refugee crisis. For example, in March 2016, NATO Commander Philip Breedlove accused Russia and Syria of weaponising migration to destabilise Europe.

Tensions reached a new high in November 2021. Poland deployed 12,000 troops to the Belarussian border to stabilise the area and deter forced migrants’ crossing into the EU. Lithuania and Latvia have also deployed troops to their Belarussian borders.

New Migrants, Same Perceived Fear

Many of the migrants trapped in Belarus are Syrian and Iraqi. This likely aides in the securitisation framing and threat perception political rhetoric because of the EU’s Syrian refugee crisis in the mid-2010s.

In 2015, more than one million refugees sought safety in Europe. They were quickly blamed for several terror attacks across Europe. Blame partnered well with narratives alleging ISIS was using the mass migration as a Trojan Horse to sneak terrorists into Europe. Securitisation discourse, increased border security, and violent deterrence to entry were common. When a Syrian passport that had been registered to a refugee was found in the aftermath of the 13 November 2015 attack in Paris, it validated the securitisation discourse for many people.

Germany became an epicentre in the crisis as it accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees, irregular migrants, and asylum applications. In 2015, 51,396 Syrian and Iraqi UNHCR mandated refugees entered Germany, followed by 30,000 Syrian and Iraqi applications for asylum. Other sources report hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylees entering Germany in 2015 (for example: Pew Research, The Munich Security Conference, and former German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere). And while only seventeen of the Syrians and Iraqis who arrived in Germany were investigated for terrorism, securitisation discourse assumed a central role in German politics and society.

But German fears of refugee-driven violence appeared substantiated by a 316 percent increase in terror attacks from 2014 to 2015 reported by the . This coincides with a 45.7 percent increase in the total number UNHCR mandated refugees, and 86 percent increase in asylum-seekers in Germany. As well as a 135 percent increase in asylum applications to Germany.

The Political and Societal Violence By And Against Refugees (POSVAR) dataset shows that in Germany from 2014 to 2015, there was also an increase in civilian violence against refugees and a 2,500 percent increase in terrorism against refugees. But none of the terror attacks were committed by refugees. POSVAR also reports an increase in refugee violence against the government, but no incidents of refugee violence against civilians.

Refugees & Terrorism

Research has generally concluded that refugees and forced migrants pose a minimal direct terror threat to host-countries. While refugee flows can spread civil war from home-countries to neighbouring host-countries, there is far less consensus on whether the risk of terror is higher or lower. Much of the research connecting refugee flows and terrorism focuses on international terrorism when fighters and resources cross borders or when refugees become the target of violence.

Research on the nexus of refugees and terrorism paints a nuanced picture. Some research has found that the frequency and lethality of terrorism is higher in countries with larger refugee populations. But how and why this can occur is widely debated and complex with a diversity of processes including radicalisation in refugee camps, looting humanitarian aid, competition over resources in the host country, or transferring ethnic or social tensions from home countries, and activating kin networks in host countries that expand the violence. Other research finds such processes only affect transnational terrorism or that only terror attack lethality increases, not the frequency.

Missing from much of this research is insight on how anti-refugee rhetoric, nationalist or xenophobic groups, and social perceptions combine to produce an increased risk of domestic terrorism. My research examines this possibility.

Host-country nationals’ attitudes about the demographic composition of their community is an important conditioning factor for understanding how refugee flows impact domestic terrorism. For many people, migration of any kind raises concerns about competition over resources, employment, social benefits, and the identity of their community. These concerns can manifest at a local level where demographics may be changing, or at a more national level where real or perceived demographic, economic, or societal changes pose a threat to an individual’s constructed national identity. When these perceived societal threats are coupled with increases in refugee inflows, it can lead to heightened perception of the risks of violence.

I find that host-country nationals’ attitudes about foreigner-born residents helps determine the risk of domestic terrorism when refugees enter the country. Host-country nationals’ xenophobia can better explain increases in domestic terrorism than refugee flows can. In a global sample of countries from 1995-2014, I find that in countries where the World Value Survey records a higher percentage of the population preferring to not have foreigners for neighbours, the likelihood of domestic terrorism increases in response to refugee inflows to that country.

Observed upticks in violence during and following refugee inflows to a country and the perceived threats and securitisation frames this can lead to are typically exaggerated and often applied to the wrong people. When refugees enter a country where residents prefer not to live next-door to foreigners, it may trigger incidences of domestic terrorism.

My cross-national findings are validated when specifically looking at Europe. In a 2017 report, the Danish Institute for International Studies shows that in 2016 and 2017, during the height of the Syrian migrant crisis, there were no terror attacks by refugees, one attack by an asylum-seeker in Sweden, and three attacks by denied asylum applicants in Germany. Yet, many politicians continued to frame migration as a security threat in response to jihadist terror attacks, even when the perpetrator was European, like in the 2 November 2020 Vienna attack. Following this terror attack, Bulgarian media and right-wing party Alternative for Germany linked the attack to lax migration policies, and French President Emmanuel Macron, following consultation with other national leaders, called for stronger EU border control to improve counter-terrorism.

What the Data Show

When a host-country population’s attitude about not having foreigners for neighbours is accounted for, it has a profound impact on the likelihood of domestic terrorism. Running a series of statistical models using UNHCR data from 1995-2014 and accounting for host-country political, economic, and social characteristics (more details here), if a country receives a large refugee inflow (measured as 45,490 people per year, the 75th percentile) the predicted probability of domestic terrorism that year is 3.8 percent. Once the host-country population’s attitude about having foreigners for neighbours (as measured using World Values Survey) is included in the statistical models, the predicted probability of domestic terrorism increases to 5.8 percent if the population’s dislike of having foreign neighbours is low (5.4 percent, the 25th percentile) and increases to 11.0 percent if the percentage is high (39 percent, 75th percentile). When faced with this size refugee inflow, a host-country with high preference to not have foreign neighbours is at an 89.7 percent greater risk of domestic terrorism than a low preference host-country.

Securitisation framing of refugees and migrants, and associated political rhetoric, can have massive negative implications for countries. Such rhetoric could increase the percentage of a country’s population who are hesitant, fearful, or outraged about living near or having non-native residents in their community or neighbourhood. This then fuels an increased likelihood of domestic terrorism as some individuals turn to, and may think they are supported in, direct violent actions such as domestic terrorism.

If framing refugees and forced migration as a security problem increases the risk of domestic terrorism, what does this mean for the ongoing migrant crisis on the EU-Belarus border?

Assessing Domestic Terror Threat on EU-Belarus Border

To investigate the impact the migrants could have on domestic terrorism in EU border states, I use the statistical models from my previous research to measure the potential effect the migrant flow could have on domestic terrorism in each border country.

Evaluating how the migrant crisis could change the predicted probability of domestic terrorism in each border country from 2020 to 2021 requires two crucial assumptions. First, as discussed above, because migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers can conjure perceived threat and securitisation rhetoric, even though the three are definitionally different, I use UNHCR 2020 statistics on the number of refugees and asylum-seekers in each country to establish baseline 2020 estimates. Second, I assume a world in which all attempted border crossings and apprehended or detained migrants were successful, and the migrants entered the respective host-country.

I input the most recently available (year 2020) political, social, and economic measures per country. GTD provides terror event data through December 31, 2019, so I supplement this with European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend reports (TESAT) for 2020 and 2021. Doing so identifies right-wing domestic terror attacks in Lithuania in 2019 and in Poland in 2020.

I replace refugee data with estimates of the number of migrants who have successfully crossed, attempted to cross, or were blocked from crossing the Belarussian border into each country. The Polish Border Guard Service reports 33,000 attempted border crossing through the end of October 2021 and another 5,100 attempts in the first two weeks of November. Latvian Public Broadcasting reports 2,003 migrants were prevented from crossing the border and 407 migrants were detained through the end of October. Lithuanian authorities report 4,200 apprehensions of migrants crossing its border and another 7,000 were pushed back through the end of November.

Applying the second assumption, based on these reports, Latvia would have received 2,410 migrants in 2021, a 239 percent increase compared to the 710 refugees and asylees received in 2020. Lithuania would have received 11,200 migrants, a 459 percent increase compared to the 2,002 refugees and asylees in 2020. And, 38,100 migrants would have entered Poland, a 498 percent increase from the 6,373 refugees and asylees entering the country in 2020.

Then I use the most recently available European Values Survey responses for preference to not have foreigners for neighbours in Poland, Lithuania, (Survey 2017) and Latvia (Survey 2008). To turn the individual responses into country-level measurements, I calculate the percent of respondents per country indicating they prefer not to have foreigners for neighbours. There is considerable variation among these countries; 20.4 percent in Latvia, 31.4 percent in Lithuania, and 18.7 percent in Poland.

After conducting the updated analysis, I find that a hypothetical massive influx of migrants to these countries does not directly increase the risk of domestic terrorism. An influx of migrants appears to reduce the risk. In Latvia, the predicted probability of domestic terrorism decreases by 3.1 percent, in Lithuania by 3.2 percent, and in Poland by 2.3 percent.

When the measurements of host-country attitudes are included in the statistical models, it completely changes how the same hypothetical influx of migrants can impact domestic terrorism in the host-countries. In Latvia, the predicted probability of domestic terrorism increases by 2 percent, in Lithuania by 22.8 percent, and in Poland by 1.1 percent. The predictions show that the host-country social environments migrants enter greatly shapes the migrants’ impact on the risk.

The impact of host-country attitudes on potential security threats stemming from this migrant crisis is not trivial. Considering the growth in right-wing extremism and violence in Europe, particularly in eastern countries along the EU-Belarus border, the widespread and entrenched securitisation discourse about this migrant crisis risks setting off a cascade of violence. Political and media rhetoric framing migrants as a threat could increase individuals’ preferences to not want to live near foreign-born people. European Values Survey data hint at this possibility as the European-wide preference to not have foreign neighbours increased from 18.5 percent in 2008, before the Syrian refugee crisis, to 23.2 in 2017.

The geopolitical battle over migration and alleged weaponisation of migrants could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Securitisation discourse and political rhetoric could fuel individuals’ perceived threat of migrants and dislike of foreign-born neighbours, thereby increasing the risk of domestic terrorism. And if there are attacks, political entrepreneurs can frame them as consequences of migration, thereby encouraging greater perceived threat and rationale for securitisation discourse.

This is particularly worrying in the world of social media disinformation where the EU-Belarus migrant crisis has already been wildly and widely manipulated. Recently, analysts identified coordinated social media campaigns by the Belarussian KGB to heighten perceived threat and fear of the migrants. And Polish social media accounts were spreading disinformation about the struggles of migrants in Poland and the EU and threat of neo-Nazis in Poland.

If European policy makers and political leaders seriously reflect on the impact migrant securitisation discourse and perceived threat have on domestic terrorism, they ought to realize they are risking their constituents’ safety and security by hyping the threat refugees and migrants pose to national security.

[i] Refugees are defined in Article 1 of the United Nations Refugee Convention of 1951 as individuals with credible fears of “being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Migrants are people who can choose or be forced to move to or flee, respectively, to new countries because of economic, food, health, or climate insecurities. Many relief agencies, analysts, and activists argue to broaden the international law definition of refugee to include these and other threats beyond traditional interpretations of persecution.