The Migration – Extremism Fallacy

An Uzbek nanny stood outside a Moscow metro station in 2016, waving the severed head of a child and screaming “I am a terrorist!”A suicide bombing in St.Petersburg in 2017 by a Kyrgyz-born Russian citizen led to a rash of rumors about potential connections to militant groups and in December 2019, 11 Central Asians were given lengthy jail sentences for their involvement. 2020 has seen even more arrests of Central Asians in Russia linked to extremist groups in Syria and Central Asia. Each of these events has become press fodder, linking migrants from Central Asia to extremism and terrorism. 

Of the estimated 5,000 Central Asians who went to fight with militant groups in Syria and Iraq from 2013 to 2018, many were migrants in Russia. In making this observation, some experts on extremism in Central Asia have concluded that migration causes radicalization. Underlying these arguments is an assumption that Central Asians in their home societies are not at great risk of radicalizing and that their radicalization potential is somehow activated by migration.

It is quite natural from the perspective of extremism experts to consider the factors that militants have in common, in this case a history of migration. Some experts are careful to specify that migration itself is not the root cause of extremism. However, the media, governments, and international organizations have been quick to take up any potential connection between migration and extremism. But these perspectives often do not consider the risk of radicalization in the wider everyday context of migrants who frequently move between Central Asia and Russia. There is a further danger as well, that linking migration and extremism will lead to the securitization of a migrant population that is already cast in marginalized terms, potentially contributing to xenophobia in society and discrimination by employers and state officials.

Only a tiny number of Central Asians have joined terrorist groups. As Edward Lemon has pointed out, even though thousands of Central Asians have counted themselves among militants in Syria, this amounts to only 0.001% of the region’s population. From the available evidence, many, if not most, of these militants were at some point migrants in Russia prior to their radicalization. But even if all 5,000 of the Central Asian fighters in Syria had been migrants in Russia at a particular moment in time, this would mean a migrant in Russia has a 0.05-0.1% chance of radicalizing, based on recent estimates of that community’s size. In other words, there is at least a 99.9% chance of not radicalizing. 

Examples from the literature on ethnic conflict also point to the need for caution. In the 1990s, the world watched ethnic conflicts erupt in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, the Caucasus, and elsewhere. Much attention was given to the dangers of ethnic war and nationalism. Focusing on the national level, Jerry Muller argued that ethnic diversity often leads to calls for division of society along ethnic or racial lines, and can even lead to the partitioning of a country. Muller was later criticized for over-generalizing based on a few cases, without taking into account that more often than not ethnic diversity does not lead to conflict. 

In the case of ethnicity, to test whether diversity leads to conflict, one must consider both conflict events and the much larger universe of non-conflict events, or those cases when diversity did not lead to conflict. The work of Fearon and Laitin offers evidence on this note. Using demographic data in Africa, they studied tens of thousands of ethnic dyads that could potentially come into conflict over a variety of different issues. They did not find frequent violence, redrawing of state borders, or other evidence of conflict. Rather, they found evidence of conflict or violence only about three times in a thousand (around 0.3%). In other words, they demonstrated not only that is conflict quite rare, but also that interethnic cooperation or peace is the norm.  

We commit a logical fallacy when we take any available cases of “ethnicity and conflict” or “migration and extremism” and miss the larger context of non-occurrences. Perhaps many episodes of conflict have some characteristics that could be labeled ethnic. This does not mean that ethnicity causes conflict. In the same way, we may see that those Central Asians who have become extremists were migrants at one point. However, if we were to claim that migration leads to extremism, or that the average migrant is vulnerable to radicalization, we would be ignoring the vast majority of migrants who never become radicalized. 

Scholars of extremism in Central Asia have linked migration and extremism, yet have urged caution when considering causal relationships and reducing complex phenomena to single causes, reflecting a broader push back against claims that Central Asia is particularly vulnerable to radicalization. International and government agencies have not always heeded such warnings, however, which has led to an increasingly securitized perspective on migration and mobility in the Eurasian region.

The potential for a link between radicalization and migration came to the attention of the U.S. government and organizations such as USAID and the International Crisis Group beginning in 2015. Since then, many of these agencies began to frame migration as a potential risk factor for radicalization and to fund large-scale projects investigating the link between migration and radicalization. The International Organization for Migration (funded by USAID), United Nations Development Project (UNDP), Search for a Common Ground, and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have merged existing counter-extremism agendas with the migration-radicalization link, often framing the results of studies in terms of risk and threat assessments.

Karolina Kluczewska meticulously documents an IOM project that has produced several publications, providing a critical account of how the agendas of USAID and IOM have worked to establish a migration-extremism link that remains unsubstantiated by their empirical material. Studies like the one conducted by Search from a Common Ground are more forthcoming in their findings that there is a lack of empirical evidence linking the average migrant to radicalizing forces. Reports by such agencies are often presented to various audiences including governments who are already prone to securitized approaches towards migrants and potential extremists. Driven by the willingness of international agencies to further their anti-extremism agendas, in this case despite evidence that their vast resources would be far better spent elsewhere, similar projects continue to receive a great deal of attention and funding. 

Where does migration fit in the extremism picture, given that so many of the Central Asians who have radicalized have done so while in migration? It could be that migration catalyzes a process in the lives of those who are already prone to radicalize. It could be that people migrate out of the same frustrations and grievances that eventually lead them to take more drastic steps. 

Some have suggested that recruiters are more able to navigate within Russia given its relatively freer religious climate, compared to Central Asian countries. However, none of these claims should be taken to point to the migration process itself, or even migration to Russia, that is to blame. Likely the vulnerabilities of these migrants to radicalize existed prior to their travels. Migration is a way of life for many residents of Central Asia. But we cannot look to mass phenomena such as migration for explanations of exceptional behaviors like radicalization. To do so only heightens a tendency to look at migrants as a threat or a risk, inviting blunt mechanisms of immigration control driven by a securitized perspective. 

International and development agencies and the governments that support them would do well to reconsider their efforts to link migration and extremism, in order to avoid increasing the vulnerabilities that migrants already experience.

Caress Schenk is an Associate Professor of political science at Nazarbayev University with expertise in the politics of immigration and national identity in Eurasia. She is the author of Why Control Immigration? (University of Toronto Press, 2018).