Europe needs a common approach to defeating ISIS and saving refugees


Picture of Urmas Paet
Urmas Paet

Member of European Parliament and Former Foreign Minister of Estonia

The expansion and brutality of the terrorist organisation known as ISIS has been alarmingly clear for some time, but still not much has been done to put an end to or strongly interfere with its international network. Since the Paris attacks in November, there has been a lot of confusion in which terrorism and the refugee crisis have often been mixed up. We should be very careful not to confuse these two topics.

By now, many people from EU member states have joined ISIS to fight under their flag, and many have returned to their home countries with deadly new skills and contacts. These recruits should be considered as the EU’s biggest internal security threat. Despite acknowledging this, though, it’s still not clear how to approach these people. Many EU countries do not even have any legislation in place to criminalise such movement to the Middle East and back. Even collecting information and proof of such activity is complicated, leaving the movement of these persons unhindered. These are the people plotting new terror acts, and we cannot wait until they commit another series of crimes in Europe. Terrorism can be prevented only when the information is found, shared and appropriately used, but extensive information collection restrains people’s liberty. The future will show how much people are willing to give up their freedom for their security.

Controls at Schengen borders would not even noticeably reduce the threat of a terror attack

France’s instant reaction after the November attack was to impose border controls with other Schengen countries. Such anxiety and fear by governments could kill the free movement of people in Europe. Controls at Schengen borders would not even noticeably reduce the threat of a terror attack. This is mainly because most of the potential ISIS terrorists are already here with EU citizenship. Furthermore, the attack on the World Trade Centres in New York was not prevented by American border controls, and the British opt-out from Schengen has not stopped tragic events in the UK even after its emergency level was raised and border checks were strengthened. Reinstating border checks might cater to the initial emotional demand for security, but does not reduce the real risks. EU member states need instead to start exchanging more security-related information across borders. Suspending Schengen and establishing hours of long border queues would hinder the EU as a whole, and that would strongly favour ISIS and its supporters.

There must also be no confusion over the fact that refugees are not terrorists. The Syrian arrivals are escaping from the very same ISIS that committed the crimes in Paris with its recruits from Europe. ISIS does not even need to create an access point in this way, as so many of its followers are already present in Europe. On that note, the EU’s response to the refugee crisis has also been plagued by problems. Chief among them is that the borders of Greece and Italy are inadequately equipped and understaffed. But these are inescapably the countries that must accept the new arrivals. Refugee-recipient centres there at the EU’s external borders must be better prepared for such sudden situations in the future. All those arriving need to be registered and their origin clarified, and those not granted asylum-seeker status need to be helped back to their home countries. No member state, including Greece, will have any excuse to push unregistered refugees towards Germany or Sweden once adequate registration centres are in place. This is a very important part of reclaiming order and ending Schengen’s internal border checks. Another important factor is Turkey, a country hosting three-times more Syrian refugees than the EU. Turkey must be helped to establish decent living conditions for migrants and refugees in order for them not to be forced towards Europe.

There must be no confusion over the fact that refugees are not terrorists

ISIS has been allowed the opportunity to expand for too long. Europe has the possibility to do more, and this includes restraining itself from emotional knee-jerk reactions and simplistic short-term solutions. Europe must begin by learning from its recent mistakes and inaction. Without coming together now to find a common European approach, it will be even more difficult to cope with any future turbulences coming from neighbouring regions.

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