Security concerns surround Europe's refugee crisis

Tens of Thousands of Refugees and Migrants Flood Croatia
Tens of Thousands of Refugees and Migrants Flood Croatia

Thousands of refugees arrive at the train station in downtown Brussels every day. They're coming from faraway conflict zones like Iraq, Syria and Libya, where deep-rooted ethnic and religious tensions and Western military intervention have given way to unspeakable violence.

The weary travelers who have made it to the northern European hub have so far been met by those largely willing to do their part to help them. Staffers at the European Union, based in the Belgian capital, have begun food and clothing drives to help prepare the stunned masses for the cold months ahead.

"There's a good spirit," one EU staffer comments, adding cautiously, "at the moment."

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The main question for what has become an epic crisis in Europe is what happens next, as millions of displaced people move to a continent dealing with its own economic hardships. They may never find what they're looking for, and locals may not be happy with their presence. All the while, the hardships from which the refugees are fleeing show no signs of ending.

See photos of the refugees bound for Europe:

It's a volatile mix that could breed violence. In places like France, Germany and the U.K., there exists seething anti-immigrant and nationalist sentiment that could boil over as new arrivals continue to flow in. Western security officials also fear some among the migrants may have nefarious intentions.

Already, authorities in Europe are setting up de facto internment camps in desperate attempts to document the massive flow of people coming into their countries. Some of those arriving are genuine refugees fleeing violence, and perhaps had to give up or destroy their identification papers if they had any hope of leaving their home borders. Others are traditional economic migrants taking advantage of the exodus to achieve their long-held hopes of making it to Europe.

But Europe may not provide the answers these refugees are seeking, sparking a sense of disenchantment that could become dangerous.

"They very well may become radicalized because it won't be the paradise they thought it would be," says Robert Milton, a former commander of London's Metropolitan Police Service. "They think once they're in the U.K. or once they're in Europe, everything will be fine. And it won't. They'll face years and years of hardship and poverty. They'll get a lot of support from our countries, but they'll still struggle."

"What it means is in two, three, four, five years' time, we may have some real problems within these communities – people within these communities who pose a real threat to us."

Many in Europe, however, are empathetic toward a generation that has known nothing but war in their homelands, while reluctant Western war planners offer few if any assurances that their future will contain anything but more violence and death.

Ana Maria Gomes, a member of the European Parliament representing Portugal, traveled to Libya last year and predicted at the time the chaos would lead to a protracted migrant crisis that would spill over into Europe. Just this week, she returned from an extended trip throughout Iraq to see the source of these fleeing refugees.

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They won't stop, she says. So Europe must do more.

"These people, they told me, they will come. There are no walls stopping them. If they don't find the doors open, they'll go through windows. They will come more and more until they have a sense we are indeed serious about fighting [the Islamic State group] and ousting the terrorists ... and there is a future for them in Iraq, or Syria or Libya," says Gomes, who sits on the parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, and the Subcommittee on Security and Defence.

Gomes cites Western wars in Iraq and Libya as examples of conflicts that have devolved into highly sectarian civil fighting. She also faults the Obama administration and others who pulled entirely out of Iraq in 2011 and didn't do much in Libya after the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi to help build upon peace, security and democratic reforms that since have all but vanished.

Now, those crises have crept into Europe, and a continued lack of consensus on how to handle the surge of refugees is tearing at the very fabric of the continent. Hungary, for example, has already begun moving away from the Pan-European accord known as the Schengen Agreement that allows people to travel unrestricted across mainland borders. Beyond simply turning away refugees, the Hungarian government has erected razor-wire fencing and deployed riot police to thwart their traveling through the country. Germany and Austria have also instituted stricter border controls.

"It is becoming an existential crisis for the European Union, this refugee process," Gomes says. "The good thing is it will make minds focused and leaders understand that they cannot delay action."

"We have the means. Why should we not use them?"

Europe's immediate response should focus squarely on identifying migrants and controlling where they travel, according to multiple security experts who spoke with U.S. News. Some EU lawmakers are pushing for the universal adoption of ECRIS, the European Criminal Records Information System. If border agents, for example, could fingerprint each refugee entering Europe and log them into the system, they could at least tell if that person has any sort of criminal history within the continental bloc.

"The biggest problem we have right now is making sure we identify the migrants at the point of arrival in the European Union," says Milton, now a security consultant and professor of criminal justice at Bay Path University in Massachusetts. "It's extremely difficult under [European] asylum legislation. If someone arrives and they claim political asylum, unless we have hard facts that they are a violent terrorist, it's very difficult not to grant them asylum and let them stay in the country."

Beyond that immediate problem lies growing ultranationalism in parts of Europe where even elected officials espousing anti-immigrant rhetoric are gaining support. Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right National Front party, recently cited images showing mostly male refugees as evidence that"men who flee their country and leave their families back home, don't do so to flee persecution. It is clearly for economic reasons."

"We educate our compatriots about the dangers of migration," she later said, according to a posting on her official Twitter page.

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Others have taken such speech a step further: The U.K.'s far-right British National Party recently stated that German Chancellor Angela Merkel's move to accept hundreds of thousands of migrants amounted to genocide against Europeans.

These sentiments and the potential for fearmongering make refugees an even more attractive target for recruitment by organizations like the Islamic State group, who see the crisis as an opportunity to further degrade any sense of unity among European nations. Even the perception of an attack perpetrated by migrants would stoke fears and foment distrust between European nationals and those hoping to call the continent their home.

"It only takes a few people who perpetrated a large-scale atrocity, and what that does then is put a stain on all the refugees. Then, everyone becomes a suspect," says M.J. Gohel, a counterterrorism expert at the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation. "There's a potential here for something I don't think the politicians in Europe have thought through."

The refugees misunderstand the situation in Europe, he says, particularly that countries there are facing high unemployment and shaky economies.

"There is likely to be more financial problems in Europe, and ... people are quite tense with the situation as it is, even before the migrants have arrived," Gohel says. "The last thing anyone wants is that kind of polarization taking place within the fabric of society, because it can develop a momentum of its own."

He added to a chorus of European leaders who have criticized countries like Saudi Arabia for not accepting any of the refugees on its own, particularly as it contributes to the U.S.-led air war in Syria. The Saudi government has reportedly offered to build mosques in Germany to help assimilate and manage the growing number of Muslim refugees heading there, but hasn't, for example, offered use of the thousands of tents in its country used to accommodate pilgrims to Mecca.

For now, to the refugees, it seems their only hope for survival is to continue to flood toward Europe.

"These people are going to come whether we want them or not," says Gomes, "so Europe must act. It's now, and we must stop finding excuses about terrorists."

It's Europe's moral and legal duty, she adds, to receive the refugees as best it can.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

Originally published