Blog post written by Dr James C. Simeon (York University) who co-chaired the recent Refugee Law Initiative Workshop on ‘Terrorism and Asylum’, held on Friday 8 December 2017 in London.


The false association and relationship between ‘terrorism’ and ‘asylum’ needs to be fully disclosed for what it is: a fear mongering sham that plays into the hands of the terrorist themselves who wish nothing more than to instill fear into everyone to advance their political agenda. The conflation of ‘terrorism and asylum’ has generated much mistrust and confusion and has obscured and distorted the present reality. There is general agreement among noted experts and researchers in each of these fields that terrorism needs to be de-linked from asylum in the public mind and that the ‘root causes’ of both refugeehood and terrorism need to be thoroughly researched, understood, and, then, more fully addressed.[1] To counter terrorism effectively, while upholding our most fundamental human rights and dignity, “[w]e must therefore unravel the myths, and separate facts from fiction. We must combat polarization and stereotypes”. In short, terrorism is an extremely powerful emotive term that needs to be considered in a calm, rational, and straightforward manner. The public and the policymakers have to be provided with the facts related to both of these terms so that the security agenda is clearly separated from the refugee exception.[2]


Additionally, it has been noted that the current anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiment taps into pre-existing biases and fears that are clearly evident in the association of refugees and terrorism. Undeniably, the linking of refugees and terrorism with 9/11 has had a direct influence on public policies internationally and across States. The broadly prevailing ‘us vs them’ mentality has led likely to injustices within forced migrant communities that has had consequences in greater radicalisation.[3] Sadly, the mere ‘threat of terrorism’ has been the justification for the restrictive public policy measures against refugees and other forced migrants. For instance, in Hungary, terrorism is driving the legislative agenda to be more restrictive to asylum seekers. Expulsion is more common with persons given quick trials and then being immediately expelled. It has been observed that terrorism and national security have assumed an umbrella nature in Hungary and it is the top of the agenda on matters dealing with public order and security. Research has shown that the introduction of serious offences and indictable offences in the UK Terrorism Act 2000 has led to worse outcomes for refugees. According to IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, the terror attacks by radical groups in Africa have increased by 200 per cent and fatalities by more than 750 per cent from 2009-2015. For example, in an effort to deal with the serious incidents of terrorism in Kenya, the Kenyan Government introduced a number of legislative changes including the 2006 Refugee Act; 2012 Prevention of Terrorism Act; and, the 2014 Security Law Amendment Act, among others. Repeated serious terrorist incidents such as in 2015 when Al-Shabaab attacked Garissa University College and killed 148 people, injured 80 or more, and took some 700 students hostage, led the Kenyan Government to attempt a massive refoulement of Somali asylum seekers and the closure of the Dabaab and Kakuma refugee camps, two of the largest in the world.



Terrorism is, undoubtedly, driving the legislative agenda of many States to be more restrictive of asylum seekers. National security concerns are trumping human rights, despite the fact the two are intimately intertwined and interrelated.[4] Nonetheless, the fight against terrorism must be compatible with the treaty obligations of States to uphold everyone’s innate human rights and inherent dignity as human beings. There is no scope for any limitations of these most fundamental human rights. One of the most enduring myths is that national security is either separated, divorced or even opposed to human rights. It is asserted that if one wants to achieve greater national security, then, it has to be at the expense of our most fundamental human rights. However, the two are not mutually exclusive. As counter intuitive as it may seem, the protection of human rights can actually enhance national security and not lessen it.


Another overriding myth that needs to be dispelled is that refugees are, in fact, security threats. This is not the case, as Alex Nowrasteh pointed out in his 2016 United States study of ‘Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Assessment’ that “the chance of an American perishing in a terrorist attack on US soil that was committed by a foreigner over the 41-year period studied here is 1 in 3.6 million per year”. He goes on to note that the “chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.” He concludes by stating, “[t]he hazards posed by foreign-born terrorists are not large enough to warrant extreme actions like a moratorium on all immigration or tourism”.


It is important to underscore that all those who are involved in terrorist activities can be excluded from refugee protection under Article 1F of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and other international refugee protection instruments.[5] What is required is the establishment of intent (mens rea) as well as a ‘significant contribution’ (actus reus) to establish the requisite complicity of the asylum applicant who is involved in terrorism. Membership in a terrorist organisation alone is insufficient to exclude an asylum applicant from refugee protection.[6] Another myth that needs to be unravelled is that asylum applicants who have been involved in terrorist activities or other serious criminality can be granted refugee protection. This is simply not true.


What is patently obvious is that both terrorism and asylum are overwhelmingly rooted in non-international armed conflict or intrastate conflict.[7] If we are to address seriously either terrorism or mass forced displacement, then, we must address one of its ‘root causes’, non-international armed conflict or civil war. Some would argue that this requires an enhanced capacity on the part of the United Nations, the international organisation tasked with the maintenance of international peace and security, to end protracted armed conflicts that are the primary drivers of the production of sustained mass forced displacement in the world today.


The recent “Terrorism and Asylum Workshop” at the Refugee Law Initiative, School of Advanced Study, University of London, considered a number of these issues in some depth. One of the outputs of the event was a workshop report. A Special Edition of the Refugee Law Initiative Working Paper Series will feature a collection of papers that were presented at the Workshop. that will be made available in the next few months. There is a pressing need to do further research in these issue areas to ensure that we are able to devise laws that address States’ legitimate security concerns without compromising our fundamental human rights and dignity, especially, our essential right to seek asylum.



[1] United Nations, Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner, “Refugees and terrorism: ‘No Evidence of Risk’ – New report by UN expert on counter-terrorism,” New York, October 21, 2016, (accessed January 22, 2018); “Refugees and terrorism must not be conflated, says UN Special Rapporteur,” EU, October 21, 2016, (accessed January 22, 2018).

[2] Jeff Crisp, “Refugees: the Trojan horse of terrorism?” openDemocracy, free thinking for the world, June 5, 2017, (accessed January 23, 2018)

[3] John A. Powell, “Us vs them: the sinister techniques of ‘Othering’ – and how to avoid them,” November 8, 2017, The Guardian, (accessed January 23, 2018); Bruce Hoffman, William Rosenau, Andrew J. Curiel, Doron Zimmerman, “Conference Proceedings: The Radicalization of Diasporas and Terrorism,” RAND, National Security Research Division, CSS, An ETH Centre, 2007, (accessed January 23, 2018)

[4] United Nations, Human Rights Council 34th Session, 27 February – 24 March 2017, Agenda item 3, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, A/HRC/34/61, 21 February 2017, (accessed January 24, 2018);  Government of Canada, “Ensuring National Security while Protecting Human Rights,” September 29, 2017, (accessed January 23, 2018)

[5] Monette Zard, “Exclusion, Terrorism and the Refugee Convention,” Forced Migration Review, 13, June 2002, pp. 32-34. (accessed January 23, 2018) Matthew J. Gibney, “Security and the Ethics of Asylum after 11 September,” Forced Migration Review, 13, June 2002, pp. 40-42. (accessed January 23, 2018)

[6] Ezokola v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2013 SCC 40, [2013] 2 S.C.R. 678.

[7] START, National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, Background Report, Overview: Terrorism in 2016, (accessed January 25, 2018); UNHCR, Global Trends, Forced Displacement in 2014, World at War, Geneva, Switzerland, 2015, (accessed January 24, 2018); UNHCR Global Trends, Forced Displacement in 2015, Geneva, Switzerland, 2016, (accessed January 24, 2018); UNHCR Global Trends, Forced Displacement in 2016, Geneva, Switzerland, 2017, (accessed January 24, 2018)



Photograph: ©alisdare1_Flickr

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.