A Matter of Justice, Not Immigration: What to do with War Criminals posing as Refugees

Life jackets from refugees escaping violence in Syria and elsewhere lay strewn on the shores of Lesbos, Greece. (Photo: EPA)

Life jackets from refugees escaping violence in Syria and elsewhere lay strewn on the shores of Lesbos, Greece. (Photo: EPA)

Rumours that terrorists have been hiding themselves among Syrian refugees and asylum seekers embarking for the shores and capitals Europe are nothing new. Especially in the wake of the Paris attacks last year, it was widely reported that groups like ISIS, or Daesh, as it’s increasingly called, were infiltrating European communities to perpetrate acts of terror. Now too, there is evidence that war criminals have followed suit.

According a report from the Guardian, Dutch authorities have identified thirty war criminals among last year’s influx of refugees into The Netherlands:

Dutch officials have identified 30 war crimes suspects, including 10 Syrians, among tens of thousands of asylum seekers who arrived in the country last year, the justice ministry said Monday.

Immigration authorities found them after investigating 170 people, Deputy Justice Minister Klaas Dijkhoff told parliament in a letter following questions from members of parliament.

Ten of them were from Syria, while the others are from Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan and Georgia, he said.

Under the Geneva Convention, refugees can be refused asylum “when serious grounds exist to believe that they are guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, or other non-political serious crimes”, Dijkhoff said.

But 20 of them could not be sent back because of ongoing wars or fears of inhumane treatment.

If the numbers are accurate, the number of refugee claimants found to be war criminals is a tiny fraction of those seeking asylum — approximately 5 in every 10,000 applicants. Still, this is not the first time that war criminals have been found among migrants — in The Netherlands or elsewhere. A 2006 CMI report on the subject attributed the growth in war criminals cloaking themselves as refugees to the global war on terror, poignantly asking how states could “guarantee fair procedures and humane treatment of all asylum seekers and simultaneously prevent human rights violators or terrorists from wrongfully being granted refugee status?”

Today, the severity of, and popular response to, the refugee “crisis” in Europe could make this issue even graver and more pressing than it otherwise would be. Of course, the flushing out and identification of war criminals can be seen as a positive development. These individuals would otherwise live with impunity and, given the complete absence of any justice for human rights violations in Syria, the detention of 10 Syrian war criminals is the closest thing to accountability for mass atrocities in the five years since the Syrian civil war erupted. Even if these are “small fry”, low-level perpetrators, they could help build cases for more senior-level war criminals.

But the revelation that so many war criminals made it into The Netherlands could also exacerbate and fuel regional racism and xenophobia among those communities and political parties already suspicious of foreigners. Responsible governments and human rights groups thus have a difficult task on their hands. They must needle a particularly tricky thread: demonstrate the need to continue supporting a generous and compassionate refugee policy whilst quelling fears that war criminals pose a threat by assuring communities that perpetrators will be brought to justice. But will they be brought to account? It isn’t entirely clear.

Some Western governments have unfortunately made their responsibility to pursue accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide not a matter of justice — but of immigration. One example is Canada. During the rule of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Canadian government issued a most-wanted list of 30 war criminals. But rather than assuring that these war criminals would face criminal justice, the government ensured that the matter was primarily one of immigration. In other words, suspected war criminals would be deported rather than held to account for their crimes. There were no trials or hearings to achieve a semblance of justice — let alone provide the alleged perpetrators with an opportunity to combat the charges against them. Even in those cases where an alleged perpetrator was simply booted out of the country, it remains unclear whether the government sought any type of assurances from the receiving government that the individuals in question would be treated humanely and held to account for their alleged crimes. What seemed like a policy of justice was anything but. And much like those liberal European states facing a massive influx of refugees today, Canada had previously been a strong supporter of accountability. Indeed, prior to this policy, Canada had been a leader in prosecuting war criminals and genocidaires who found themselves on Canadian soil and worked closely and effectively with international criminal tribunals to bring perpetrators to justice.

The Dutch as well as other European governments will continue to find nefarious actors and criminals among those clamouring for asylum. In some cases, including those of any alleged Syrian war criminals found on European soil, their hands will be tied: they cannot be sent back to Syria due to the threat to their lives from ongoing violence and instability. But the question remains: will they be reprimanded in immigration detention facilities or charged and prosecuted for their alleged crimes?

If any justice is to be achieved, the broader international community will need to play a part by lessening the burden on European capitals. Regional states around Syria and Iraq, as well as Europe, bear the brunt of the refugee “crisis” in large part due their geographic locations. But the prosecution of alleged war criminals is a notoriously expensive proposition. To assist in achieving accountability, a few options exist. Most obviously, states can pool their resources and help each other with prosecutions and evidence sharing in order to boost the capacity of domestic prosecution of international crimes. Perhaps a more remote option, but one which should be at least considered, would be to set up some type of extraordinary tribunal to investigate and prosecute refugee war criminals.

It seems inevitable that more war criminals will be identified amongst the ranks of legitimate refugees. How states and the broader international community respond will determine whether the influx of refugees into Europe and elsewhere brings with it not only hope for those escaping violence but also delivers a sliver of justice for the atrocities perpetrated in Syria. It bears remembering that the vast, vast majority of those refugees who flee to Europe do so to escape this sort of violence, not perpetrate it.

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About Mark Kersten

Mark is a researcher, consultant and teacher based at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto, Canada. His research focuses on the nexus of international criminal justice and conflict resolution. Specifically, Mark's work examines the politics of the International Criminal Court and the effects of its interventions on peace, justice and conflict processes.
This entry was posted in Canada, Europe, International Criminal Justice, Refugees, Syria, The Netherlands. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to A Matter of Justice, Not Immigration: What to do with War Criminals posing as Refugees

  1. Terry Washington says:

    Given that NEITHER Iraq or Syria(both of whose countries make up the territory ruled by Daesh/IS) have signed or ratified the ICC Convention I am not certain what can be done- various countries could prosecute these putative war criminals under “universal jurisdiction” laws but not much else!

  2. Terry Washington says:

    Given that NEITHER Iraq or Syria has signed or ratified the Rome Statute or ICC Convention I am not certain what can be done with these putative war criminals!

  3. Will Nist says:

         Stop being paranoid and learn how to be a man and stop pissing your pants and using somethink you don’t even believe in for political.  You should feel deep shame.  Someday you may be a refugee and you deserve to have nowhere to go.  Unlike these people.  William N, Scranton PA.  Family here since  @ least 1658.  I say we need to take many refugees in from Syria.  Perhaps up to 250,000  

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  6. There are always going to be wolves in sheep’s clothing. No matter of prudence can keep them all out. I don’t believe hundreds of thousands should suffer due to the fear that far less than one percent of them could pose a threat. Thanks for the post!

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