Islamic State is paying the smugglers’ fees of child refugees in a desperate attempt to attract new recruits, according to a report highlighting the potential vulnerability of unaccompanied minors to radicalisation.
The report, from counter-extremism thinktank Quilliam, also says that an estimated 88,300 unaccompanied children – identified by the European Union’s police agency Europol as having gone missing – were at risk of being radicalised.
Citing failures in the approach of Europe, particularly the UK, towards protecting child refugees travelling alone, the report, published on Monday, warns that jihadi groups, including Isis and Boko Haram, have attempted to recruit within refugee camps using financial incentives, as well as working with the people smugglers.
Quilliam said that Isis had offered up to $2,000 (£1,600) to recruit within camps in Lebanon and Jordan. Last year, Jordanian special forces reportedly found what they described as an Isis sleeper cell inside a refugee camp near Irbid, north Jordan. Additional reports indicated that Isis had tried to recruit refugees by supplying food previously withheld from camp residents.
Nikita Malik, a senior researcher at Quilliam, said: “Young asylum seekers are targeted by extremist groups as they are more vulnerable to indoctrination, make able fighters and, in the case of girls, can create a new generation of recruits. This report outlines national and international requirements to reduce the risk of child-trafficking, extremism and modern slavery.”
Malik also identified how jihadi groups targeted refugees in their propaganda material. From June last year to last month, she found 263 instances of such groups attempting to convince refugees to wage jihad against non-believers or join extremists and convert to Islam.
Examining the online material from Isis, the Taliban, al-Qaida, al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria, researchers found the four Islamist groups mentioned refugees every day between 13 June 2016 and 8 January 2017, with the most dominant theme – 53% of all references – relating to calls from fighters and believers urging refugees to wage jihad. Another 32.1% of the gathered data related to “negative grievances”, the grim consequences if they attempted to leave.
The report said: “Young unaccompanied refugees are more vulnerable to radicalisation if they are separated from their parents, who remained in the country of origin at risk to violent and radical groups, or in a new host country. There is no question that militant groups target refugee youth for recruitment. It has also been argued that refugee youth can become autonomously radicalised, through online content, for example.”
Researchers identified a number of risk “hotspots” where refugees and young people were particularly vulnerable to recruitment by extremist organisations. One of the most acute of these is the north African coast where Quilliam said Isis fighters have offered £800 to those who join them.
Another so-called hotspot is the south Libyan town of Qatrun, where reports have indicated that Isis, which is believed to have between 4,000 to 6,000 fighters in the region, has waived £450 smuggler fees to allow refugees to travel north if they joined its ranks.
What is not known are the numbers – if any – of refugees that might have joined jihadi groups in this way, though the suspicion created by the possibility of this is likely to amplify xenophobia and anti-refugee sentiment in Europe, said Quilliam. The thinktank said that, even when unaccompanied minors made it to a destination country, such as the UK, they faced a series of factors that could radicalise them.
“If the vulnerabilities of young refugees arriving at their destination are not countered by a long-term approach to integration, democratisation of national identities, and prioritisation of well-being and mental health of young people, the risk of radicalisation is likely to persist into future generations,” said Malik.
Among the failings identified in the UK that could ultimately radicalise youngsters was its detention policy, which is criticised for having no statutory time limit on how long an individual may be detained under immigration powers, the only country in the EU not to have a maximum limit. A total of 3,000 detainees in immigration centres were on suicide watch during 2015, including 11 children, said Quilliam.
Despite Home Office guidelines stating that immigration centres should “avoid the detention of children”, 853 children were detained between 2010 and 2015. The 171-page report advances the creation of a safeguarding and resilience against extremism framework which would be mandatory for organisations such as the Home Office and the National Crime Agency.