Calling Out the Misuse of Terrorism Rhetoric Against Refugee and Asylum Seekers

Using terrorism tropes to deny legitimate protection to refugee and asylum seekers is not a new phenomenon. But, given the ongoing deployment of such incendiary and poorly grounded claims by governments around the globe, and their restatement during a recent regional conference on terrorism in Budapest, it seems like a good time to revisit this issue and underscore the weakness and the problems of this political posturing. It also provides a moment of pause and reflection to ensure that necessary and proportionate counterterrorism policies around the globe are not hijacked by xenophobic or discriminatory rhetoric that targets migrants and asylum seekers. As Ben Emmerson, then-United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism, concluded in 2016: There is no evidence that restrictive and carceral migration policies lead to an increased terrorist threat and restrictive migration policies are often directly counterproductive to their purpose of preventing terrorism.

Linking anti-terrorism measures to the management of cross-border flows serves multiple purposes for some States. It ties together a pathology of fear that links two perceived threats, and, in some sense, leveraging the anxiety that two quite different social, legal and political challenges pose into an apparently unified whole. The goal, of course, is often to justify extreme limitations on rights, as well as bypass State obligations under treaty and customary international law concerning refugees, by framing the State’s posture solely in terms of (an often undefined and generic) terrorism threat. Here, the extremity of terrorism is conveniently leveraged to limit the obligations owed by States to the most vulnerable individuals fleeing violence, persecution, terrorism and systematic human rights violations.

We have yet to see robust global or regional data that demonstrates that refugee flows are synonymous with terrorism, that refugees are more likely to carry out acts of terrorism or that refugees are somehow more prone to radicalization than others. As Emmerson underscored in 2016, a fact that remains relevant now, “This perception is analytically and statistically unfounded and must change.”

As current Special Rapporteur, I remain deeply concerned that States continue to peddle unfounded theories based on no solid empirical foundations and which continue to target, undermine and dehumanize persons who are vulnerable and have been traumatized from conflict and terrorism. Refugee and asylum-seekers are, to note the obvious, often fleeing terrorism, are frequently the victims of terrorism and are used, on the one hand, to demonstrate the viciousness of certain terrorist groups but then denied the humanity and protection of law that rightly follows from being victims. For example, this double standard is evident in the reduction in refugee admissions being pursued by the United States, and the policy of non-admission and third country by-pass being pursued by the European Union.

The applications of this rhetoric in practice includes wall-building, encouraging and supporting push-back operations, pre-entry interceptions and screening measures, criminalizing irregular migration, ignoring non-refoulement requirements, detaining asylum-seekers, excluding persons without individual assessment from refugee or other protected status, criminalizing those who support and lend assistance to refugee and asylum seekers and abandons international legal commitments to refugees, result in restricted access to safe territory and increased covert movements of people, particularly by traffickers. As Martin Scheinin affirmed in 2007, there is a general acknowledgement of the need for increased border security by states as part of an effective counterterrorism strategy, but there is also a corresponding need for concrete measures that compensate for the difficulties that persons fleeing must overcome in order to access protection.

The policies of limiting refugee and asylum admission are driven by a highly regrettable rhetoric of terrorism, which enhances the exclusion and dehumanization of legitimate asylum and refugee seekers, placing them in far greater danger. Effective counterterrorism does not result from name-calling of the world’s most vulnerable and marginal people — those seeking safety from terrorist groups, militarized responses and fragile States who are unable to protect the most fundamental of rights and humanitarian needs. When States engage regionally or globally on terrorism issues, it remains essential that human rights protections and rule of law are the bedrock of the common ground between them. This is not simply because such rhetoric is an ethically and morally suspect way to proceed but because meaningful security depends on doing better. 

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About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism. This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity. Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. You can follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).