Refugees from the Middle East and north Africa are “masking the movement” of terrorists and criminals, Nato’s top commander told Congress on Tuesday, despite the protests of human rights groups who say that refugees overwhelmingly have no ulterior motive but escape.
In testimony to the Senate armed services committee, US general Philip Breedlove said that the Islamic State terror group is “spreading like a cancer” among refugees. The group’s members are “taking advantage of paths of least resistance, threatening European nations and our own”, he added.
Breedlove also blamed Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria, in support of autocratic leader Bashar al-Assad, for having “wildly exacerbated the problem”.
The airstrikes, nominally against Isis but largely against the various rebel groups arrayed against Assad, have allegedly killed more than 1,000 civilians, including children. Breedlove said these indiscriminate attacks mean to terrorize Syrians and “get them on the road” toward neighboring countries and Europe.
The Kremlin and Assad intend, according to Breedlove, to use migration as a weapon to weaken European unity and infrastructure. The general said that European nationalist groups that oppose immigration also weaken the continent, and could themselves threaten violence.
Since taking command in 2013, Breedlove has pushed for an aggressive refortification of Europe, calling Russia a “long-term existential threat” to the US, and suggested Europe and the US should do more to counter Assad and Isis in Syria.
Pressed by reporters to back up his assertion with statistics, Breedlove said: “I can’t give you a number on the estimate of the flow.”
Breedlove distinguished between “criminality, terrorist and foreign fighters”, and said that he has seen news reports saying as many as 1,500 fighters have returned to Europe.
“I’m not going to talk to you about intelligence,” he said at a news conference, adding that “many [countries] are saying they see planning happening” for a terrorist attack.
Thinktank and congressional estimates of how many foreign fighters have traveled to Syria vary widely, with 1,500 toward the higher end of numbers of fighters reported to have returned to western nations.
Though Breedlove’s remarks on Tuesday echoed fears voiced by many in the wake of Paris terror attacks last November, human rights activists have stressed that nearly all of those attackers were French or Belgian. Only an extraordinarily small minority of refugees even sympathize with terror groups, activists said.
“We are talking about needles in haystacks,” said Bill Frelick, the director of the refugee rights program for Human Rights Watch. “It’s not to say that there aren’t dangerous needles in those haystacks, but overwhelmingly we’re talking about people who are seeking protection and bear no ill will, and I would say in fact bear gratitude to anyone who’s willing to help them.”
Frelick said that Breedlove’s remarks reflected the refugee crisis “through a military prism”.
“It’s important that none of us dismiss security concerns,” he said, “but pushing people back into the fire can create a domino effect, like closed borders in Hungary, Greece, Turkey, that’s potentially every bit as destabilizing as the kinds of fears Gen Breedlove is talking about.”
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