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Deradicalisation in refugee camps and beyond

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Tuesday, 24 May 2016


The influx of millions of Syrian refugees to Europe is more than likely to become another source of radicalization that could increase the number of violent extremists among the refugees and lead to further acts of terror in their host countries. Depending on how long the refugees stay in camps and the way they are treated, terror attacks will either be reduced in number, frequency, and scope, or made increasingly acute once they are permanently resettled. Host countries must employ special methods to thwart any infiltration attempts by violent extremists under the guise of being refugees, and develop a countering violent extremism plan that encompasses all aspects of deradicalization.

Host countries have little choice but to do just that because a single attack would come at the enormous cost of dozens of casualties and massive destruction, not to speak of the fear, panic, and economic dislocation that would spread throughout the community; the attacks in Paris and Brussels speak for themselves.

To achieve their objective, host countries must consider every aspect of what the refugees have experienced, both psychologically and physically, and carefully assess the short and long-term impact that every measure will have on the mindset of the refugees so as to reduce their anxiety and enable them to embrace this new chapter in their lives.

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The focus on internal security in the camps and the gathering of intelligence must receive top consideration. It should be emphasized, however, that no amount of policing or sophisticated intelligence gathering will suffice unless such activities are taken in conjunction with a host of other preventive measures.

To begin with, host countries must judiciously reflect on the trauma that nearly every refugee experiences as a result of being abruptly and often forcibly removed from their homes, leaving behind much of their possessions, family, and friends, let alone the torturous emotional ordeal of not knowing what is in store for them.

To ease this individual and group trauma, local authorities need to provide psychological counseling to the refugees, with a special focus on youth between the ages of 15 and 25, who are the most susceptible to radicalization and may otherwise become easy prey for violent extremist groups to recruit while awaiting resettlement.

In addition to counseling, they need to be occupied with positive activities, for example, helping in the relief efforts in the camps and other administrative duties, to feel useful and relevant, which would help them regain their self-esteem.

They should also be provided new outlets for communal engagement, including professional training, sports activities, and education, not only to allay the trauma they are experiencing but also to begin the process of adjustment to a new and productive life.

Education, however, should not be limited to the youth. Teachers should also receive counter-radicalization training and develop curricula that underscore the horrible downside of violent extremism. In addition, the families of young boys and girls should be included in the education process, as parents could hold extremist views because of their past bitter experiences.

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Indeed, idleness and boredom breed contempt, resentment, and impatience. The young need to be kept informed as to when their trials may come to an end, what to expect once they leave the camps, and what means they will be provided with to live with their families in dignity.

It is well-documented that the longer refugees stay in camps, the greater the risks are for radicalization, which is further aggravated when the camps are overcrowded, unsanitary, and isolated with little or no access to the outside world.

In years past, many Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, as well as Afghan refugees in Pakistan in the 1990s, became radicalized, and today we are witnessing the slow emergence of a similar phenomenon among Syrian refugees.

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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