Don't Fear Refugees

Why They Pose Little Threat to National Security

A migrant woman pulls a girl out of the water as refugees and migrants arrive on an overcrowded dinghy in rough sea on the Greek island of Lesbos, October, 2015. Dimitris Michalakis / Reuters

After the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, hostility toward refugees in many Western countries has surged. Last week, France’s anti-immigration National Front, already popular before the attacks in Paris, achieved its best ever results in the first round of regional elections, winning almost a third of the vote. In the United States, meanwhile, 31 governors and almost all the Republican presidential candidates oppose further refugee settlement in the United States.

Fear of refugees following a terrorist attack is a natural reaction, and some confusion over the connection between refugees and violence is understandable. Even the academic community, which has studied the topic for years, has yet to settle on an understanding of the relationship between the two.

But making efforts to block people fleeing to the West from war zones is the wrong response to the horrors of Paris. The latest evidence suggests that the connection between refugees and terrorism is tenuous. The West can take in refugees without jeopardizing its national security.


The two main grounds for caution in welcoming people from conflict-torn regions are intuitive and widely shared. The first is that individuals seeking refuge across international borders threaten to destabilize the countries that take them in. 

Some research supports this view. Experts have theorized that refugee communities may include political activists and insurgents who mobilize and recruit in the receiving country, giving rise to the purported phenomenon of the “refugee-warrior.” Refugee camps serve as potential military bases from which refugee-warriors can wage insurgencies. Others, including the political scientists Idean Salehyan and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, have argued that refugees, as they themselves flee violence, are a mechanism by which internal conflict in one state can spill across borders. People leaving war zones may bring weapons, terrorism, and militant ideologies with them.

People gather to protest against the United States' acceptance of Syrian refugees in Olympia, Washington.
People gather to protest against the United States' acceptance of Syrian refugees in Olympia, Washington, November 2015. David Ryder / Reuters

The second argument against welcoming refugees is that although the vast majority of refugees may be peaceful, they may

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