On May 8th, NBC News reported that the Islamic State (ISIS) had infiltrated the Rukban Refugee Camp in Jordan. According to the report, Jordanian military leaders in the area believe that ISIS fighters in the camp have access to a range of weapons—from small arms to rocket-propelled grenades. The dangers of Rukban complicate the Trump administration’s proposed solution to the refugee crisis: refugee camps in “safe zones.” The infiltration of the camp by ISIS, and the growing plight of its non-militant inhabitants, demonstrates why these refugee camps are not a replacement for refugee resettlement.
Safe zones have long been a proposed solution to managing the large refugee flows coming out of Syria. Instead of resettling refugees, the implementation of safe zones would set up areas in Syria in which refugees could live protected from both ISIS extremists and the Syrian regime. The Obama Administration was actively considering safe zones in 2014. Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton proposed them during the campaign. At the time, then-Republican nominee Donald Trump decried Clinton’s proposed safe zones—until he took up the idea’s mantle after assuming the presidency.
Criticism of this idea, however, has been around for as long as there have been people to propose it. While most critics focus on the dangers of implementing a safe zone in regard to other countries—it would a require a no-fly zone that may force the U.S. to shoot down Russian planes in Syria—there were also concerns over how safe zones and refugee camps could provide opportunities for extremists in the region.
The Rukban Refugee Camp is not the first safe zone extremists have infiltrated. In 2007, the Fatah al-Islam extremists used their base in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp to attack Lebanese soldiers. The attack lasted 15 weeks, killed hundreds of people, and caused hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damages to the refugee camp. When large refugee camps were proposed for the Syrian crisis, the risk that these camps would be used as cover by extremists may not have made the news. But it was a concern. The news that ISIS is actively using ungoverned refugee camps has demonstrated that these concerns were valid.
A secondary risk, however, is that large refugee camps can also provide cover for extremist radicalization. A study conducted in 2013 by Daniel Milton, Megan Spencer, and Michael Findley, found that both the location and condition of refugee camps increases the risk of radicalization among inhabitants of the camps. Underfunded camps provide the type of hopeless environment that can increase a refugee’s susceptibility to radicalization. Camps like Nahr al-Bared and Rukban—both lacking basic necessities, infrastructure, and employment—can become fertile grounds for extremist recruiting.
Finally, because of their value to extremists as sanctuaries and recruiting grounds, these camps can also be destabilizing for the greater region. Extremists use the camps to undermine the governments in the region. The Fatah al-Islam, for example, wanted to undermine the Lebanese government—an American ally. It does not need to be pointed out that ISIS has destabilized both Iraq and Syria, as well as other countries in the region. This destabilization increases future risks of conflict and terrorism in the region, threatening U.S. interests.
While large refugee camps have been upheld as the cost-effective solution, these arguments often ignore the secondary costs of stabilizing the countries in which they are built. The United States has spent millions on military support in Lebanon since 2007. Jordan and Lebanon both need assistance as refugee populations strain their infrastructure and flood the job markets. Expenditures on large refugee populations have increased tension between host populations and the refugees. This tension can lead to alienation, and further exacerbate risks of radicalization and regional conflict.
It is clear then that safe zones and refugee camps are not a suitable replacement for resettling refugees. While refugee camps can serve as temporary refuge for those fleeing conflict, over time they can become sources of new tensions and conflicts. Instead, resettlement provides several advantages over safe zones and refugee camps. Resettlement gives refugees better opportunities for jobs, maintaining critical skills and crucial part of self-identity. Removing refugees from squalid camps provides a counter-narrative to propaganda used to recruit new extremists, and it lessens the strain on already overtaxed allies in the region.
A counterargument may be that, with ISIS extremists infiltrating refugee flows, taking in refugees exposes host countries to terrorism. But refugees are already extremely well vetted—undergoing an arduous process to make it into the United States. The risks of taking refugees is low, and are outweighed by the benefits of countering ISIS propaganda. The Rukban camp also demonstrates that refugees in camps will have to be vetted when they leave to return home, given their infiltration by ISIS fighters. This is not just a problem for the security forces of Syria and Iraq—if the extremists in this camp melt back into the general population, they could continue a terrorism campaign that might pull in American military forces and support. In the meantime, the camp simply provides a place for extremists to hide, plan, and coordinate operations.
There are no easy solutions in handling the refugee crisis in Iraq and Syria. While safe zones and refugee camps may seem like a cost-effective way of keeping the problem at a distance, they come with a hosts of costs and risks. Instead of relying on safe zones and camps, we should resettle vetted refugees so that they can have basic necessities, opportunity for work, and security from those they are fleeing. This approach is better for the refugees, the region, and American security.