Building walls to keep out immigrants helps terrorists

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  • Authors: Building walls prompts people to seek illegal means to cross borders
  • Trafficking in people creates vulnerability that terrorists can exploit, they say

Ben Emmerson is the UN special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights and an international lawyer, and he specializes in European human rights law and international criminal law. Jessica Jones is a human rights barrister specializing in international and criminal justice work and legal adviser to the UN special rapporteur. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.

(CNN)We live in a world at a crossroads. The conflicts in Syria rage on, seemingly impervious to the various attempts to resolve them -- a horrifying staging ground for broader US-Russian tensions, and the front line of terror groups' battles for territory.

Ben Emmerson
Jessica Jones
A tragic consequence of this and other global conflicts and inequalities are the 65 million displaced people around the world. Last year, 1 million people a month fled their homes, in many cases to escape regions where terrorist groups are active and to seek sanctuary in Western democracies.
    As they have made their often perilous journeys, the rhetoric that has greeted them has become increasingly inflammatory. In the final presidential debate Wednesday night, Donald Trump described Syrian refugees as "definitely, in many cases, ISIS-aligned," continuing a trend of incendiary comments around migration he began last year with his call for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," and built on this year by calling for immigration to be stopped from "any country that has been compromised by terrorism," a policy that would effectively condemn ordinary Syrians to exile in a deathtrap.
    He later clarified that such measures would be "temporary" until "vetting systems" were in place. But even his later comments display intolerance, irresponsibility and a blinding ignorance of the way in which a safe world order -- a world order that keeps us, in the United States, in the UK, in Germany, safe -- is created.
    There is a reason that our countries are destinations for migrants fleeing persecution. No one can value life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness more than those who have endured and understand the terror of endless bombardments, the oppression of life under ISIS, the despair of once-vibrant cities crumbling around them. What we claim to offer is a set of values that speak to people of all nationalities: freedom, tolerance, opportunity.
    But those values are seriously threatened. Trump's extreme rhetoric (and he is not alone -- the Czech President has made similarly inflammatory remarks, as have politicians in the UK, Slovakia and elsewhere) reflects and contributes to a widespread misperception that the movement of people is a threat to national security.
    It has become an all too common assumption that those fleeing regions in which terror groups are active present a heightened threat or embody a greater risk of radicalization that might lead them to commit acts of terror in the countries to which they flee.
    But there is no evidence that that is the case. Indeed, as our report to the UN General Assembly sets out, the assumption that refugees present any terrorist risk to the countries receiving them is statistically and analytically unfounded, and must be challenged.
    Refugees are, in many cases, victims of terrorism. They must not be marginalized as potential terrorists. They must be protected.
    Right now, the world is failing in that duty. Our report shows that states are building fences, engaging in pushback operations and criminalizing irregular migration to clamp down on the entry of people to their territories -- but such steps are often counterproductive.
    While the intention might be to protect those already within our borders, the truth is that restricting access to safe territory for those outside it encourages covert movements of people, including by traffickers, which makes borders more, not less, porous.
    The establishment of clandestine routes across international borders and the criminalization of individuals legitimately seeking access to safe countries may ultimately assist terrorists who exploit chaos and vulnerability in equal measure.
    For those who make it to our borders, the fear-mongering engaged in by Trump and others leads to discrimination, social exclusion and the marginalization of communities, which have been recognized by international bodies as conditions conducive to terrorism.
    Respect for the humanitarian needs and human rights of migrants is not distinct from counterterrorism objectives; it is central to them. The hard-line approach will backfire.
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    It is time to be clear: It is not in our interest to flout international law and restrict refugees' routes of escape or the assistance we provide them. To protect ourselves, we must face up to and fulfill our obligations to the millions of displaced people struggling to re-establish their lives.
    Every citizen must recognize their own responsibility for upholding and promoting the values that form the fabric of our society. A series of clear choices must be made over the next weeks and months, and the very future of our democracies may depend on them. The baton is in our hands.