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Folly of treating all refugees as would-be terrorists solves neither problem

Australia cannot solve the global refugee crisis by looking at refugees as part of the overall terror threat. Reuters/Giorgos Moutafis

Folly of treating all refugees as would-be terrorists solves neither problem

Australia cannot solve the global refugee crisis by looking at refugees as part of the overall terror threat. Reuters/Giorgos Moutafis

A “draft” cabinet document recently leaked to the media suggests the idea that refugees are a potential source of terrorism and radicalisation will soon shape Australia’s humanitarian resettlement policy.

If implemented, refugees – not just boat arrivals – would be seen as a security issue. By offering only temporary residence and making Australia a less attractive destination, it makes deterrence the aim of the entire refugee program.

What’s being proposed?

Viewing all refugees through the security prism, and further restricting their rights, is a tactic to try to manage the much larger global refugee crisis. The number of refugees and internally displaced people exceeds 60 million. This is the highest since the end of the second world war.

Since the 1990s, various deterrence strategies have eroded the rights of those seeking protection onshore in Australia after having arrived by boat. These have included temporary protection visas, mandatory detention, the excision of the migration zone, the Pacific Solution and regional processing and resettlement.

If the leaked policy document is accurate, now all refugees are to be put into the category of – at best – temporary residents.

The justification for this punitive policy is the perceived connection between refugees and terrorism. The document links the outcome of earlier humanitarian policies and asylum decisions to terrorism and extremism. It points out that individuals who arrived on humanitarian-linked or refugee visas – Man Haron Monis, Farhad Jabar and Abdul Haider – have committed recent terrorist acts.

The document also identifies previous humanitarian programs as having contributed to radicalisation and the increased risk of terrorism. It says the special humanitarian program for Lebanese refugees during the civil war in the late 1970s is evidence refugees can import “extremism”, and “unsuccessful integration” can make young Muslims more receptive to extremist beliefs.

It puts forward the Lebanese Sunni Muslim experience as a warning. It argues they are today the:

… most prominent ethnic group amongst Australian Sunni extremists.

But the ethnic stigmatisation of Lebanese Sunni Muslims highlights shortcomings with the contemporary understanding of radicalisation and terrorism. It equates ethnicity with “extremism” and the potential for radicalisation with social environment.

The equation of Lebanese Sunni migrants with extremism is historically and politically inaccurate. The Lebanese civil war was primarily a sectarian struggle over power-sharing.

The terror threat, and Australia’s place in the world

Seeing Muslims in Australia through the security lens has led to the intensification of surveillance to intercept and prevent terrorist plots. Since September 11, seeing Muslim diasporas in the West this way has only reinforced the formation of transnational Muslim identities.

In other words, “Muslim” is now a transnational category targeted to manage transnational risk, not only in Australia but also Europe and North America. Muslim culture and practices are no longer merely about difference because difference has become a political marker to question national loyalty.

New laws stripping dual citizens involved in terrorism of their Australian citizenship are an expression of the ultimate sanction against disloyalty. But this might play right into the hands of Islamic State recruiters, who point to the West’s targeting of Muslims as a threat as evidence of the historical victimisation of Muslims.

The further restrictions on rights to asylum set out in this document are not primarily about terrorism or Muslims, but about the global refugee crisis. The reality of globalisation is we are deeply connected with different parts of the world. What happens there reverberates here. Terrorism is one dimension of that interconnection and appears to be here to stay.

We are facing this global refugee crisis because of our profound failure of political vision in the Middle East. The present wave of international terrorism is a symptom of the impact of a regional political conflict played out in Syria and Iraq. Australia cannot solve the global refugee crisis by deeming refugees as part of the overall terror threat to deter them from coming.

Refugee policy and counter-terrorism strategy should not be collapsed into the same space.