Refugee camps in many parts of the world are becoming recruitment grounds for extremists, as groups attempt to foment long-term discord in vulnerable societies.

On 4 September, Lebanese authorities announced that they were taking measures to prevent the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in Sidon, a coastal city south of Beirut, from being a safe haven for extremists, by repatriating extremists and their families to Syria. The camp, originally built for, and still administered by, displaced Palestinians, has been the subject of reports of ISIS flags flying and posters displayed of the group’s self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as well as Osama bin Laden. Lebanese authorities have even built a wall to prevent jihadis infiltrating, amid reports that al-Qaeda fighters in Syria had used such camps as safe rear bases for recovery.

The Syrian conflict has been the major contributor to the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Accompanying urgent humanitarian needs have been concerns that camps for refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) are become fertile recruitment grounds for extremist radicalisation. Evidence points to extremist groups attempting to take advantage of the precarious situation of refugee communities. Researcher Nikita Malik found daily attempts in jihadi propaganda to radicalise refugees. Yet extremist violence is often the very force that has driven these people from their homes.

Such concerns are not a new phenomenon. Refugee camps often pose security challenges for host countries, and there has been evidence of extremists trying to influence vulnerable communities in camps in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, where militants have used them for recruitment, shelter, and food. The simultaneous transience and permanence of such camps mean they often become microcosms for neighbouring conflicts, as grievances, sectarian sentiment, a lack of job opportunities, and uncertain identities risk becoming deeply rooted across generations.

Yarmouk, a third-generation refugee camp designed to host Palestinian refugees in Syria that has now become a fully integrated district of Damascus, is the site of ongoing contests between rebels, jihadi groups, and government forces, a stone’s throw from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s power base. In April 2015, it was reported that ISIS controlled 90 per cent of the camp.

In Jordan, military commanders have expressed great concern about the growing influence of ISIS in the sprawling Rukban camp on the country’s border with Syria. One commander said the group was “trying to control it and create cells inside the camp.” Extremists can operate in a governance vacuum with relative immunity, with self-policing structures developing in camps, as Syrian tribal and rebel groups fill the vacuum left by absent security forces and aid workers.

Turkey’s city of Gaziantep, the centre of gravity for many of the country’s main camps for displaced Syrians, has cultivated a hybrid ecosystem of refugee communities, extremist recruiters, and international NGOs. In such environments, there is a tension between pressing humanitarian needs and longer-term developmental concerns. In Lebanon, for example, between 50 and 80 per cent of the 360,000 school-age refugee children are out of school, prompting concern about the long-term prospects of young people and their vulnerability to extremist narratives, as reports indicate that jihadi groups offer food and financial incentives to radicalise young refugees. 

This phenomenon, prompted and exacerbated by the disintegration of Syria, is part of a global picture. In 2015, Kenya announced it was to shut the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp, the world’s largest, claiming that al-Shabaab militants from neighbouring Somalia had infiltrated the camp, amid concerns the group was using the location as a platform to extend its operations across Kenya. Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto claimed the camp served as a centre for recruitment, radicalisation, and the training and planning of terrorist attacks by al-Shabaab.

While Dadaab’s fate remains uncertain, experts such as the Atlantic Council’s Joshua Meservey have raised serious concerns about the potential implications of closure, including agitating fragile communal tensions and forcing desperate civilians into the hands of al-Shabaab. Although closing camps might be electorally popular, such decisions risk worsening regional stability and people’s vulnerability to extremism.

Boko Haram’s shifting insurgency tactics in the Lake Chad Basin have involved impersonating refugees in order to carry out attacks. More than 800 Nigerian refugees, half of whom are children, were repatriated from Cameroon in July because of suspicion by authorities that the group may comprise some Boko Haram elements, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Meanwhile, two women disguised as refugees killed at least 56 people and injured 80 in February 2016 at Dikwa camp, which houses some 50,000 IDPs, mainly women and children rescued by the Nigerian Army. Such attacks risk turning the victims of the Boko Haram insurgency into potential suspects.

From Europe to sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, extremists recognise that driving and inflaming public distrust of refugee communities and promoting a strong association between refugees and violent extremism help to foster intolerance in host communities. In countries such as Lebanon, this increases sectarian tensions. In European countries, this feeds the warped narrative (perpetuated by both Islamist and far-right extremists) of inevitable conflict between Islam and the West. Increasing polarisation risks perpetuating a vicious cycle whereby a breakdown in community cohesion exacerbates vulnerable communities’ susceptibility to extremist narratives.

No one wants to be a refugee in a camp, and recognising this dissatisfaction is key to understanding the potential both for radicalisation and for harnessing refugees’ long-term prospects and aspirations. Policymakers have a difficult and important balance to strike, by recognising that extremists are targeting some refugee communities for recruitment, but without framing entire vulnerable populations as an inherent security threat.

Research on radicalisation in refugee camps by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs has indicated that alongside freedom of movement and the ability to find gainful employment, a rounded education builds resilience against extremist ideologies. In Dadaab, it was found that “undergoing moderate classes in Islamic studies was a successful counter to extremist or militant interpretations of Islam” and “made students more tolerant of different cultures and religions.” Together with humanitarian needs, such safeguarding efforts should be an important part of a wider focus on realising the needs and aspirations of these vulnerable communities.