Blog post written by Dr James C. Simeon (York University) and Dr Sarah Singer (RLI), who will be co-chairing the upcoming Refugee Law Initiative Workshop on ‘Terrorism and Asylum’, to be held Friday 8 December 2017 in London.


Two of the most pressing global concerns today are, undoubtedly, the escalating incidence of terrorism and the growing refugee crises. Both stem, unmistakably, from the same source, our “collective failure to resolve conflict” in the world today. Reflecting on this point, it has been observed that,

The world is entering its most dangerous chapter in decades. The sharp uptick in war over recent years is outstripping our ability to cope with the consequences. From the global refugee crisis to the spread of terrorism, our collective failure to resolve conflict is giving birth to new threats and emergencies. Even in peaceful societies, the politics of fear is leading to dangerous polarization and demagoguery.[i]


Terrorism appears to be rampant and far reaching, with more than 13,400 terrorist attacks worldwide that resulted in more than 34,000 deaths in 2016 alone. Of the 108 countries in which such attacks took place – more than half of the countries in the world – most of the terrorist attacks (87%) and deaths (97%) are concentrated geographically in the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. These also happen to be the location of the major source countries for the world’s refugees. It is patently obvious that what terrorism and refugees share in common is the pall of protracted armed conflict and instability.


The essential dynamic of terrorism is, of course, to advance a political cause through paralyzing fear and anxiety dispersed widely throughout a population. The efficacy of such a strategy for advancing constructive change has not been supported through empirical studies.[ii] Indeed, the United Nations has condemned terrorism in the strongest terms possible and considers it to be a serious threat to international peace and security.[iii] Nevertheless, the threat of terrorism has escalated in the past decade and a half, a phenomena which correlates with the upsurge in the number of armed conflicts today.


Armed conflict is the breeding ground for all manner of serious criminality including terrorism; for example, when combatants indiscriminately target civilians they are committing serious international crimes such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and/or terrorist acts.[iv] It is also axiomatic that forced displacement is a consequence of armed conflict. No one wants to be caught in the crossfire, to be collateral damage, or to suffer the consequences of trying to survive in a war zone without food or water, medical supplies and health care, or access to a livelihood. All of these are the clearest examples possible of the severest breaches to a person’s most fundamental human rights. It stands to reason, therefore, that anyone caught in a war zone would be forced to flee to protect their life, liberty, and the security of their person; that is, simply to survive.



Ever since the coordinated terrorist attacks that took place against the United States on September 11, 2001, the worst in modern history, security has been the pre-eminent concern of the major Western industrialized societies. These terrorist attacks killed nearly 3,000 people and injured more than 6,000 others, not to mention the millions who were traumatized around the globe. The resulting property and infrastructure loss and damage was $10 billion; and with an economic loss of some $3 trillion.[v] This has had a profound effect on many things; a driving force behind global and domestic anti-terrorist measures, including, those  seeking asylum from persecution under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.


One of the consequences of 9/11 was to lead many States to broaden their domestic statutory definitions of what constitutes terrorism, especially, in the United States.[vi] Since there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism, States have seen themselves free to define terrorism as they please. This has resulted in a situation where more people are being labelled as a ‘terrorist’ when they ought not to have been, with resulting implications for exclusion from refugee protection under the ‘criminality clauses’ of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.


The linking of refugees with terrorism has been fueled by concerns that potential terrorists have infiltrated refugee migratory flows and are using asylum as a means to seek entry to a country to perpetrate terrorist acts. This has led some States to refuse refugees access to their territory, apply “push back” policies and/or restrict access to asylum within their jurisdiction.[vii] Yet it has been demonstrated that in reality the number of refugees who have committed terrorist acts is negligible.


These are among a number of salient issues and concerns that have arisen with respect to “terrorism and asylum” over the last decade and a half, which will be explored during the “Terrorism and Asylum” workshop, hosted by the Refugee Law Initiative on 8 December 2017.


Global problems, like it or not, require global solutions and this is abundantly evident for protracted armed conflict, terrorism, and the refugee crisis. Through the workshop we hope to contribute to a more informed and enlightened understanding of how to undertake positive and constructive durable peaceful solutions in resolving these two most pressing public issues of our time.



Works Cited:

[i] Jean-Marie Guehenno, “10 Conflicts to Watch in 2017,” FP, Foreign Policy, January 5, 2017, (accessed September 2, 2017)

[ii] Max Abrahms, “The Political Effectiveness Revisited,” Comparative Political Studies, (2012) Vol. 45, No. 3, pp. 366-393.

[iii] UN Security Council Resolution 1566 (2004), 8 October 2004, United Nations S/RES/1566 (2004), (accessed October 23, 2017), States, in part, as follows:

Acting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations,

  1. Condemns in the strongest terms all acts of terrorism irrespective of their motivation, whenever and by whomsoever committed, as one of the most serious threats to peace and security; (p. 2)

[iv] United Nations Information Centre, Canberra, “Security Council considers protection of civilians in armed conflict and stronger peacekeeping mandates,” August 29, 2013, (accessed October 23, 2017); Lisa Schlien, “UN: Stop Deliberate Targeting of Civilians, Aid Workers Around Globe,” VOA, August 19, 2017, (accessed October 23, 2017); Human Rights Watch, “Death from the Skies, Deliberate and Indiscriminate Air Attacks on Civilians,” April 23, 2013, (accessed October 23, 2017); (BBC News, “Syria chemical ‘attack’: What we know,” 26 April 2017,

[v] Benjamin Elisha Sewa, “Worst Terrorist Attacks in World History,” World Atlas, April 25, 2017, (accessed September 1, 2017)

[vi] Roy Strom, “Shining a Light: Pro bono attorneys fight to expose how asylum seekers are labeled as terrorists, The terrorism bar,” Chicago Lawyer, Vol. 36, No. 8, August 2013, (accessed August 31, 2017); (National Immigration Justice Centre (NIJC), “The Terrorism Bars to Asylum,”

[vii] UN News Centre, “Europe’s restrictive measures place added hardships on refugees and asylum-seekers – UN,” 23 February, 2016, (accessed October 25, 2017); Human Rights Watch, World Report 2017, European Union, Events of 2016, (accessed October 25, 2017); Human Rights Watch, World Report 2017, Australia, Events of 2016, (accessed October 25, 2017)



Photograph: ©DanielCastroGarcia

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