After Paris, Will the United States and Europe Give Migrants the Cold Shoulder?

Atlantic Council’s Fran Burwell and Faysal Itani say despite calls for stronger screening, some terrorists will inevitably get through

The discovery of a Syrian passport near the scene of a suicide bombing in Paris on Nov. 13 and confirmation that one of the attackers had entered Europe as part of a wave of hundreds of thousands of migrants has put a spotlight on the security implications of the migrant influx. Despite calls for tougher measures, including stricter border controls and background checks for migrants fleeing war zones, it is unlikely that a failsafe method can be developed to prevent attacks like the ones in Paris.

“Unfortunately, the phenomenon of ‘foreign fighters’ makes it most likely that future terrorists in the United States and Europe will be citizens who travel on their own passports, rather than those entering illegally or under pretense,” said Fran Burwell, Vice President of European Union and Special Initiatives at the Atlantic Council.

At least 129 people were killed in the Paris attacks, the deadliest terrorist attack in Europe since the Madrid train bombings in 2004. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Implementing foolproof measures to screen asylum seekers is a daunting challenge given the fact that the refugees are fleeing war zones often with little more than the clothes on their backs and travel documents that are sometimes forged.

“Despite security measures, some terrorists will get through,” said Faysal Itani, a Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “The ultimate question comes down to whether a particular country’s population will allow them in.” 

Even before Nov. 13, European governments were taking a fresh and hard look at their policies to allow entry for migrants.

As a result of this rethink, “the external borders of Europe will be strengthened, and there will be more checks to ensure that refugees are who they claim to be,” said Burwell.  

Itani predicted that the entry of migrants into the United States “may be slowed down and made more difficult, but I don’t think we will see any substantial rethinking” of policies. That is because the United States, unlike Europe, does not have “a Muslim integration problem,” and is shielded from the bulk of the migrant influx by virtue of its geography, he added.

Taking a stand

In Europe and the United States, the Paris attacks have transformed the debate over the influx of migrants — the largest migration of people since World War II — into a discussion about security. In Europe, far-right groups have exploited the attacks to bolster their xenophobic messages.

A question mark now also hangs over the fate of a plan to distribute 160,000 migrants among all EU member states. Konrad Szymanski, Poland’s incoming Minister for European affairs, wrote in a blog post that as a result of the Paris attacks his government does “not see the political possibilities to implement” the EU migrant plan.

In the United States, at least eleven Republican Governors have said that their states will not accept Syrian refugees.

US President Barack Obama lashed out at such sentiment and described as “not American” the suggestions from some political leaders that the United States only accept Christians fleeing Syria.

“Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values,” Obama said on the sidelines of the Group of 20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey, on Nov. 16. “Our nations can welcome refugees who are desperately seeking safety and ensure our own security. We can and must do both.”

The White House announced in September that the United States would take in least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. That policy will not change, the Obama administration said this week.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker showed a similar resolve. He said the Paris attackers are “exactly those” that the migrants arriving on Europe’s doorstep are fleeing. There are “no grounds to revise Europe’s policies on the matter of refugees,” he added.

Fran Burwell and Faysal Itani spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: Do the United States and the European Union need to rethink their policies on taking in migrants fleeing war-torn parts of the world, especially Syria?

Burwell: Even before Friday, a rethink of these policies was underway. In particular, the external borders of Europe will be strengthened, and there will be more checks to ensure that refugees are who they claim to be.  

However, it appears that most of the attackers were French citizens, rather than having entered Europe through the current refugee flows (although it still remains very possible that one or two may have been “refugees”).

Unfortunately, the phenomenon of “foreign fighters” makes it most likely that future terrorists in the United States and Europe will be citizens who travel on their own passports, rather than those entering illegally or under pretense.

Itani: The United States has a much higher margin for maneuver politically and security-wise. I imagine that the process in the United States may be affected. It may be slowed down and made more difficult, but I don’t think we will see any substantial rethinking of the policy of taking in refugees. Firstly, the reason is that the United States, unlike Europe, does not have a Muslim integration problem. This is something the Europeans have been struggling with for years.

Secondly, the United States has much more control over the process because of simple geography. Whereas with Europe you have already had a problem with Islam and Muslim migrants and, indeed, local Muslim populations that have been there for more than one generation. Europe is also reacting to a flood of refugees rather than picking whom they would or would not offer resettlement, which is what the United States is doing.

Q: Are the attacks in Paris likely to complicate efforts to unite Europe around an EU plan to take in migrants, and bolster the arguments by countries such as Hungary that have never been eager to take in the migrants?

Burwell: Definitely it will complicate this effort. Not surprisingly, those European governments that did not want to take in refugees have used the attack to argue that the earlier reallocation of a few refugees is invalid — see the statements by the new Polish government. But the attacks are also likely to stimulate even more intelligence sharing and police cooperation among EU member states as we have seen between France and Belgium this weekend.

Q: The European Council’s President, Donald Tusk, says Russian military operations in Syria have created a new wave of migrants. Do you agree?

Itani: There are frontlines that had been relatively stable, or had low-intensity conflict for a while, that have now become very dynamic — like in Aleppo province. This is where these new migrants have come from. When you add to the equation the fact that the firepower the Russians employ in their airstrikes is much greater than anything the regime has, and because it was the air attacks that were the primary displacers of the population, it has undoubtedly added to the problem.

The more interesting question is has whatever Russia is doing led us to the situation where we are more likely to have a negotiated settlement to the conflict, which would in theory improve the refugee problem? My own sense based on the sort of ideas and proposals being floated around is that I don’t think so.

Q: Amid calls for more intensive background checks for migrants, countries are already grappling with the challenge of screening people who are fleeing war zones, sometimes on forged documents. In the face of such challenges, what measures should countries consider to address the security aspect of the migrant influx?

Itani: There are two ways refugees go to places. They go as asylum seekers or through a system of vetting and resettlement. Vetting and resettlement starts with the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), which then contacts particular governments and there is another vetting process. The criteria are pretty well defined and a lot of time is spent with the applicants to determine whether they are or are not eligible.

In Europe, the refugee problem is somewhat different. You have thousands of people washing ashore. They are asylumseekers and under international law you cannot send them back. I don’t think this is a surmountable problem. Despite security measures, some terrorists will get through. The ultimate question comes down to whether a particular country’s population will allow them in. 

Q: Is the effort by  far-right groups  in Europe to exploit the Paris attacks likely to stir up racial tensions on the continent?

Burwell: To some degree the far-right groups will succeed in stirring up racial and ethnic divisions in Europe. But in response to the Paris attacks, we have also seen statements calling for the preservation of Europe’s values and those of the United States. And we have seen a great outpouring of support and sympathy for the French victims from across Europe.

Q: What do the attacks in Paris mean for the debate on creating a safe zone inside Syria?

Itani: The lines between who is and isn’t open to the idea of creating a safe zone in Syria and putting themselves in some sort of conflict with the regime have already been well established throughout the past four years. I don’t think this changes anybody’s mind.

Within twenty-four hours of the Paris attack we had this process in Vienna, which included most of the powers involved in Syria, and they came up with a plan that didn’t involve any creation of any safe zones, which would have constituted an escalation of the conflict.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Ashish Kumar Sen and Faysal Itani

Image: A pro-refugee demonstration was held in downtown Hamburg, Germany, on Nov. 14 a day after deadly attacks in Paris left at least 129 people dead. The attacks, claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), have put the focus on security in discussions in the United States and Europe about an influx of migrants. (Reuters/Fabian Bimmer)