By Job Mwaura
Is there justification to harbouring thoughts that tie accelerated violent extremism to refugee immigration? This dilemma is founded on events that have been experienced in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and United States of America among others, which have recorded increased acts of terrorism in recent times.
No doubt, there has been an increase in refugee numbers in the past decade. In 2016 alone, some 65.6 million people were forced out of their native countries, according to a global study on displacement trends carried out by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The global events that may have caused this unfortunate phenomenon remain unaddressed. Just as the world comes to terms with economic hard times facing sub-Saharan Africa which contributed 5 of the total 17 million officially recognized refugees worldwide, besides consequences related to civil strife and war turmoil in Asia, another crisis has fashioned out as the COVID 19 public health pandemic.
The events transiting into 2020 are indicative of an inward-looking world — thinking and acting more national rather than global — and this is likely a harbinger of yet unrevealed violent extremism and heightened refugee crisis in regions of unstable democracies, low political and religious tolerance, as well as other drivers of unmitigated poverty. Experts warn that individualisation of global challenges may open room for terrorism, which remains ferociously united in its approach. The Internet, a difficult-to-police enabler, provides a conducive operational space and may even become more potent for exponential growth of radicalisation when interventions by the world nations are uncoordinated. In these circumstances, the fear for violent extremism is real.
Refugees in diverse circumstances are often faced with dichotomous human rights violations which tend to offend their dignity. The duality of their suffering is broad and could easily escalate into resentment, a trait that agents of violent extremism often exploit to promote radicalisation. In the originating jurisdictions, refugees informally and most likely escape probable persecution and discrimination with an onward mind frame for formal acceptance by local communities in foreign countries where they [wish to] settle. This is hardly ever the case though, because many of the communities in host countries frequently show hostility towards them for fear of dwindling economic opportunities. Given this background, the United Nations Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee has urged host nations to facilitate and ensure improved living conditions for refugees, besides cultivating a culture of tolerance, an attitude of respect within a policy and legal framework categorising all refugees as persons at risk of insecurity. However, this has been hampered by the burden of high budgets in African nations synonymous with testy economic conditions, and unfulfilling income generating opportunities.
The European Union is torn, with some of its members supporting refugee friendly policies and subsequent socio-economic environments, while others begrudge them in equal measure. This scenario isn’t helped by constant and escalated acts of terrorism apparently carried out by refugees in different European nations. Revenue constraints, particularly limited disposable income among the eight African nations hosting most refugees out of the possible ten known globally — including Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Burundi, Somalia, Kenya, Sudan, DRC and Ethiopia — alongside a hostile Europe is worrying if contextualized in security terms.
While anecdotal reports reveal refugee camps to have become breeding grounds for violent extremism, there is no guarantee that such dangerous trends will cease. As the struggle for scarce resources continues to manifest in many of the countries hosting refugees, xenophobic tendencies have emerged emerge. Such incidents have also been reported in many parts of Europe where hate attacks have been on the rise. Local communities in host countries rationalise their dislike for refugees by citing constrained social services in health, education and competition over employment.
Violent extremists understand these conditions and are likely to exploit them for recruitment of more followers into causes of violence with promises of better life. They often represent the aforementioned scenarios as injustices, including discrimination, racial intolerance and systemic marginalisation. The refugee crisis has globalised and philosophised the anarchy originating from violent extremism. Groups such as Al- Qaeda, ISIS, Taliban and Al-Shabaab have become promoters and sympathisers of extremism, radicalisation and terror, modelling as saviours of the downtrodden. They have deeply intertwined webs of financial support, knowledge development and invested in online platforms such as WhatsApp to infiltrate societies even those considered conservative. The smart phones have by default aided them in pushing their agenda to refugees who mostly rely on mobile telephony for communication and other monetary transactions.
Kenya is part of this heritage and clearly represents the ideal operational environment in which violent extremism may flourish. The country is host to two refugee camps, in Kakuma and Dadaab, both in the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs) of the northern frontier with a history of political marginalisation, economic deprivation and infrastructure discrimination. Allegations that refugees sometimes numbering 400,000 seemingly lead better, more comfortable lives than locals is demonstrated by purported high-end UN led funded investments of the humanitarian infrastructure. Some members of the host communities have temporarily abandoned their nationality and feigned asylum seeking to access the rather privileged refugee life as a survival mechanism. Others have continued to show hostility with claims of state marginalisation. Similarly, suspected Al-Shabaab militants have found their way into the camps masquerading as people running from persecution in the neighbouring state of Somalia.
These conditions, it is said, are a perfect conspiracy to hoodwink Kenyans of different orientations, especially the youth who seem ostracised by economic systems into violent extremism. Thus recruitments, nascent radicalisation and basic training before eventual militancy commences.
Nevertheless, there are indications that bridging the gap between locals and refugees could be the anti-dote to heightened acts of violent extremism. In Kenya the government seems to appreciate the underlying issues fuelling contradictory relationships between hosts and refugees. The government and its partners have been making efforts to reduce tensions between these two groups with a view to creating synergies, mutual respect and positive interdependencies. Through county administrations — this is interpreted as a national security matter — partnerships between locals and refugees are encouraged to sustain resources sharing and collective decision making, partly to scale down conflicts but largely to enhance opportunities for intelligence collection. Further, the State has allowed support for funding to be extended to non-state actors, including NGOs under the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF) Fund to work to extinguish budding cells in refugee camps.
Experiences in Europe and the Americas should be learning points for Africa towards entrenching a sustainable culture of peaceful coexistence. Although the nexus between violent extremism and refugee explosion is not yet very clear, interventions may have to be expanded through developing, strengthening or reviewing legal and policy framework to the threshold of international laws and treaties. Kenya has commenced the review of the Refugee Act, but how responsive this could be to the realities is yet to be established.
Implementing refugee protection programs, where local communities hold considerable stakes, could change attitudes and reduce chances of xenophobia. We must also shift towards a deliberate redefinition of humanitarian support to investment that opens up incremental opportunities for livelihoods and integration, gradually nipping the dependency syndrome common among refugees. We must also endeavour to drive the partnerships between the western world and African nations to work towards the mutual improvement of human rights for refugees, and similarly work to ward off the root causes of displacement in the countries of origin.
These measures, and more, should be motivated by a desire to create an enabling environment for asylum seekers to return home or, alternatively, find reason to stay in their host countries without feeling persecuted or unwelcome. We must essentially cut off the incentives often offered by violent extremists to seemingly disparate populations in need of survival.
— Writer is Program Monitoring officer at the Legal Resources Foundation