Why compassion for incoming refugees is now so crucial

Government-airlifted refugees arrive in Canada this week. Compassion, not inflated security concerns, is what’s needed most.

By: /
10 December, 2015
A Canada Border Services Agency logo is seen on a worker during a tour of the Infield Terminal at Toronto Pearson International Airport, that is set up as a temporary port-of-entry for Syrian refugees entering Canada. December 8, 2015. REUTERS/Mark Blinch
By: Nicole Tishler

 PhD Candidate in International Conflict Management and Resolution at Carleton University. 

On whether and how to accept Syrian refugees into Canada, social media and political commentators have been firmly divided into two camps: those motivated by humanitarian responsibility, and those who prioritize national security.

But with the first plane of government-airlifted refugees arriving at Toronto’s Pearson Airport Thursday evening, it is ironic that the most vocal proponents of the security camp are likely candidates for undermining Canada’s future safety.

When the government first confirmed its intention to fulfill its campaign promise of resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada by the year’s end, there was widespread concern that attention to security screenings would be sacrificed in the name of expediency. When the government unexpectedly extended its campaign-promised deadline by two months, not all opposition was assuaged. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, for instance, still takes issue with the setting of a deadline altogether, since Canada must take “all the time that might be necessary to ensure security and successful settlement.”

This persistent concern about ensuring security by mandating lengthy screening processes, however, appears unfounded: even before the timeline extension, CSIS and the RCMP had confirmed in a press conference their capacity to fulfil the goal in complete accordance with their robust screening practices. Now, with an extended timeline, Canadians should have full confidence that our security and intelligence services will ensure terrorists do not exploit refugee status as a means of entering Canada and staging attacks on our soil.

Still, critics would be right to argue that a few number of refugees who do not currently pose a threat to security may radicalize toward terrorist violence in the future, just as individuals born in Canada may do so, as the recent record has shown. While the rate of radicalization to violence is infinitesimally small, it is in the country’s national security interest to drive its incidence even lower; it only takes one person to carry out such acts of terror as those experienced by Canada in October of last year.

To counter this threat, the Canadian government has been committed to building strong communities that are resilient to violent extremism and radicalization—an approach first articulated formally in the government’s 2011 counter-terrorism strategy. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been doing—and will continue to do—their part to prevent terrorist radicalization, but the Canadian public has a role to play here, too. So far, we have been doing a very poor job of it.

Xenophobic and unwelcoming words and actions—whether they be explicit, as in the recent arson attack against a Peterborough mosque; unintentional, as is the case of many Canadians with sincere albeit misguided opinions regarding how best to ensure homeland security; or under the guise of partisan critique—engender distrust and hostility toward incoming refugees. This environment is ripe for exploitation by those very terrorists from whom refugees have risked their lives to flee. From a security standpoint, in this context, Canadians can best reduce the risk of future domestic radicalization by embracing our humanitarian duty and treating our refugees with dignity and respect.

There is no such thing as a socioeconomic or psychological terrorist profile. In fact, many individuals radicalized to violence in the Canadian context are remarkable only in their ordinariness. However, there are both “push” and “pull” factors that repeatedly turn up in individuals’ radicalization trajectories.

A common thread in many such trajectories has been feelings of socioeconomic marginalization or alienation, which push vulnerable individuals into the arms of terrorist recruiters. Simultaneously, the kinship, support, and understanding offered by and within terrorist networks are frequently recognized as pull factors. Indeed, one of the strongest predictors of participation in terrorist groups is having a friend or family member in the group; some scholars have even gone so far as to argue that the real objective of terrorist groups is to foster these social bonds—not to pursue their stated goals.

In their vetting process, our security services will almost certainly ensure that the refugees accepted into Canada will not have existing terrorist ties. But if these vulnerable individuals arrive in a hostile and untrusting Canada where they are treated with suspicion and forced toward the margins of society, they will seek out and be welcomed with open arms into vibrant online communities where their feelings of frustration, isolation, and grievance are shared. It is in these online communities (which, to be sure, have real-world equivalents that may be accessed as well) that violent ideologies fester, and terrorist recruiters manipulate vulnerable individuals.

And such “vulnerable individuals” are not limited to our incoming refugees. Socioeconomic marginalization and alienation catalyze radicalization by those who experience it personally, but also by those who identify with their plight and experience it vicariously. And even if perceived injustice is insufficient to push sympathizers to violence on its own, it can serve as a powerful rhetorical tool by those already committed to a terrorist ideology and who will fight on their behalf. ISIL itself may be the greatest beneficiary of hostility toward Syrian refugees in the West, since such hostility confirms the jihadist narrative of the West’s unrelenting war against Islam and its followers on which ISIL’s ideology and perceived legitimacy are premised.

Although the government’s extended timeline appears to have quelled criticism from the majority of Canadians who opposed the original refugee plan due to its tight timelines, the continued resistance from some proponents of the “security camp” is disconcerting. 

To those who take Canada’s security seriously and wish to make a difference: abandon counterproductive and hostile language and behaviours, and welcome our Syrian refugees into warm, compassionate, and resilient communities. 

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