The most chilling man I met in Eastern Europe had trekked from Serbia into Croatia, laboring through thick mud with a woman and two adorable children. He had a nice smile, and I felt sorry for him. He seemed traumatized.
He told me his name was Karman, and that he’d fled Kobani, a Syrian town attacked by ISIS last fall. American airstrikes and brave Kurdish fighters eventually fought off the jihadis, but the battle left Kobani destroyed, Dresden-like. He told me his father had perished there, as had a friend, “shot in the head, pop, to the street — I saw it.” As he spoke, his child in the red coat bit a balloon handed out by volunteers, and it popped loudly. Everyone flinched. “Kobani is boom,” he told me, like the balloon.
None of that story — not a word of it — was true, I learned, thanks to Iraqi friends who tipped me off after seeing my photo of him on Instagram. The man I interviewed was actually Karwan Rahman, a.k.a. Karwan Chewar, a well-known TV reporter from the tranquil city of Sulaymaniyah in Kurdistan, Iraq. He had left behind a well-paying job, taking the Balkan route to Europe and passing himself off as a Syrian refugee.
Karwan wasn’t dangerous, and was probably lured to identity fraud just by the promise of a more comfortable life in Europe. Nonetheless, my encounter with him gave me a firsthand glimpse into just how uncontrolled European migration has become. No one can know with certainty whether those crossing the border are who they say they are.
Not since World War II has the world seen so many refugees; the United Nations estimates that nearly 60 million people across the globe were displaced in 2014. Grappling with this crisis, Europe faces perilous security risks. Some of these risks are immediate, others will likely emerge over decades, and both kinds were demonstrated in the recent Paris terror attacks.
The European Union has failed spectacularly to identify and track newcomers, though countries earlier had agreed on a clear-cut process for dealing with asylum seekers. In theory, newcomers to EU countries are, at minimum, to be recorded, fingerprinted, and photographed at least once. Under the Dublin Regulation, asylum seekers must register in the first EU nation they encounter or risk deportation.
In practice, no official I spoke to could offer reliable assurances that he knew who, exactly, were crossing and where, exactly, they had come from. Some border authorities emphasized that countries earlier along the migrant route were responsible for such registration.
But the most prominent of those countries, Italy and Greece, have been overwhelmed by the volume of migrants. The Greek island of Lesbos temporarily suspended its registration process in September after 35,000 refugees crowded into Mytilene, a town home to just 27,000 residents.
“There were times this summer that I felt like I was holding a bomb, and the fuse was slowly burning, and I was calling for Europe to come help me before the bomb explodes,” the mayor of Lesbos recently told Politico, about a month after a record-breaking 9,800 people landed ashore in a single day, most having made the crossing in flimsy inflatable boats run by smugglers.
Then there are countries such as Germany, which decided in August to suspend the Dublin Regulation by offering special treatment to Syrians. Refugees would get safe harbor while their asylum applications were processed, regardless of which other EU countries they had already traversed. That well-intentioned decision, paired with Germany’s prodigal welfare benefits, exacerbated the existing problem of fraud as migrants sought to reach Germany.
Fraudulent Syrian ID cards, passports, and birth certificates can be bought for as little as $250. Some documents for sale are reportedly genuine, recovered from dead Syrians or procured by corrupt Syrian officials. EU border guards struggle to verify the authenticity of refugees’ identification, lacking sufficient staff and technology.
“All of them present a security threat because we don’t know who they are,” Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, told Politico in the wake of the Paris attacks. “If you allow thousands or millions of unidentified persons into our house, the risk of . . . terrorism will significantly increase.”
He is right. Europe’s out-of-control migration has put the entire continent in peril. All summer, Europeans decried Hungary as racist for its cautious attitude and strict border controls. German firms even refused to sell Budapest barbed razor wire for fencing, claiming it was “misusing” the product to keep out refugees. But now, confronted with the bloody reality of recent terrorist attacks instead of a worrisome hypothetical, more Europeans find themselves leaning toward tighter restrictions on migration.
While implementing more border controls may help Europe address short-term vulnerabilities, it will do little to address the long-term security risks of hosting large, unassimilated immigrant populations. Officials say at least one of the Paris attackers traveled alongside refugees on the Balkan route, using fake Syrian identification. But six of the other attackers were born in Europe. Of those men, all but one had a prior criminal record. Four were also already known to authorities for suspected terrorist ties.
The challenge of assimilating Europe’s newcomers struck me as I interviewed a group of refugees in a Serbian camp near the Croatian border. The interview was cordial, but as it concluded, a young Western man in my group reached out to shake the hand of a young woman in his group. She blanched, hesitant to make physical contact with a member of the opposite sex.
I fretted about the prospects for such women a few days later in Croatia, when one volunteer recounted a story from the border. It had poured rain that week, and a woman stumbled in the mud. A male volunteer rushed to help her to her feet. The woman’s husband came at that aid worker with a knife, my source said.
Much concern has been raised about how many of the newcomers are fighting-age men. On the borders of Hungary, Serbia, and Croatia, I spoke to some of them.
They were not what I had expected. Mohammad Jamal al-Mousa, a Syrian pharmacist, left behind his family in Aleppo. He cradled his phone, showing me a photo of his two daughters. They’re both under ten, dressed in little red skirts and patent-leather shoes. One wore red bows in her pigtails. Al-Mousa lives in fear that his girls will be forced to don coverings — “They [take] away her childhood,” he said indignantly. “I want my girls to be educated and happy. Now, my children are so small, but they’ve learned what a bomb is, and they can recognize warplanes.”
Al-Mousa faced no good choices. Aleppo, where he left his family, isn’t safe — but neither is the smugglers’ route to Europe. Stories abound of cheap boats sinking and everyone on board drowning, of traffickers who rape women, of refugees who suffocate to death while crammed in trucks. So al-Mousa and his wife decided he would make the dangerous journey alone, get legal status in Holland, and send for his family.
Many of the young men I met had also left family behind, hoping to reunite after sparing them the perils of the initial journey to Europe. While this explanation for a disproportionately male crowd is reassuring, it also means that the migration shift Europe experiences today is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg.
This is not to say that Europe — or the United States, for that matter — should reject all refugees. I spoke to an Iraqi woman who watched her small child die, shot in the head by ISIS as she and her family fled. He was just learning to walk, she told me in a voice thick with crying. She would be welcome in my home, as would a young Syrian man who let me trace the shrapnel in his forearm with my fingers. He spoke perfect English. When the Paris attacks happened, his Facebook profile changed to the French flag, and he messaged me about how it is his obligation to embrace Western culture. People such as these crave safety, and the West should provide it if it can.
But as Paris reels from its second terrorist massacre in a year, European countries are slowly warming to the idea that the interests and the security of their own citizens must come first.
– Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a fellow of the Franklin Center, the Independent Women’s Forum, and the Steamboat Institute.