From Displacement to Discord: Unraveling Complex Ties Between Refugee Integration and the Rise of Extremism

by Irina Bălăoi

Headlines around the globe are filled with refugees fleeing harsh realities in their home countries. While nations struggle to cope with this trend, frontline international organisations work tirelessly to forge effective human rights laws and improve living conditions to stem the flow of refugees. The impact of migration can be traced in a variety of areas like social cohesion, environmental sustainability, labour markets, and the volatile stage of geopolitics, just to name a few of the potential risks.

Among the potential risks, socioeconomic factors are the most visible consequences of refugee movements which can significantly impact host countries’ economies and societies. The influx of refugees can bring new skills and labour resources into the economy, stimulate local demand for goods and services, and contribute to cultural diversity. On the other hand, if not properly managed, this sudden increase in population can also strain public services, and affect local labour and critical infrastructure, thus leading to social tensions, especially in areas where resources are already scarce.

While migration could have positive effects in the receiving countries, the situation on the ground is more nuanced. Migrant integration, especially refugees, is a difficult process as they might be faced with cultural differences, traditions, and beliefs that go against the local customs. If the integration process is not managed carefully, conflicts and tensions can arise. These tensions can potentially lead to anti-immigrant sentiments, and even violence. It provides an opportunity for malicious political actors to create and spread xenophobia attitudes throughout society.

For example, Germany, a country with significant problems with an ageing population, received about half a million refugees in 2015 (Hasselbach, 2020). Many Syrian refugees in Germany, especially those living in small towns and villages, are subjected to various forms of harassment and discrimination that range from verbal abuse to property damage and slander. This led to extremists and right-wing groups in Germany calling for returning refugees to their home countries and proposing strict measures for those remaining (Europe, 2019).

All nations have sacred values that have grown up with. In contrast, extremist beliefs can relegate asylum seekers to small communities where they can nurture hatred towards the host society. Xenophobic groups target migrant communities, with the goal of trying to create an impermeable wall between them and the society of the host country. These groups reduce these communities, framing their anti-immigrant argument as “us vs. them”.

A study conducted by Artis International, Oxford University and other partner universities on members of terrorist groups such as the The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and members of other extremist groups shows that after playing “Cyberball” and integrating into a group, the tendency for extremist beliefs decreased. Still, these beliefs came back when the game rejected them (Atran, 2019). This simple example shows how society’s rejection plays a significant role in nurturing extremism.

The link between refugee movements and the breeding ground for extremist beliefs is a complex issue. Nevertheless, there are certain conditions in refugee camps that, if not addressed, could foster the spread of extremist ideologies.

In addition to the great difficulties of adjustment due to differences in culture and race, and the traumas that refugees suffer, they come up against a wall that is fortified by prejudice. The scrutiny they are subjected to, where every little movement and behaviour is analysed, can generate trauma, leading to the development of mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Refugees, asylum seekers and survivors of torture who access National Health Service talking therapies can present a particular clinical challenge for cognitive behavioural therapy specialists (Brooks, 2019). This analysis of refugees and the scepticism with which they are met reinforces the hatred that asylum seekers may attract.

Refugees often leave their homes because of untenable conditions, such as conflict, political persecution, economic depravity, or environmental disasters, which in themselves can create feelings of disenfranchisement and disillusionment. Refugees who are forced to leave their homes and communities often face a journey of heightened risk and uncertainty that can lead to trauma, despair, and a deep sense of injustice.

Once in a host country, refugees often find themselves in difficult conditions, such as overcrowded camps or urban areas, where they face a variety of problems, including lack of necessities, limited access to education and health care, social exclusion, discrimination and sometimes even hostility from the local population. These conditions can foster feelings of alienation and marginalisation. Limited socioeconomic opportunities and difficulties integrating into the host society can lead to social isolation and increase some people’s susceptibility to radical narratives that convey a false sense of belonging, meaning and empowerment.

Extremist propaganda often exploits these feelings of marginalisation and disillusionment to spread its ideologies by portraying themselves as protectors or as the only authorities willing to provide vital services and support. As a result, refugees may be lured into their ranks not out of ideological conviction but rather out of desperation, and the need for their security or livelihood needs to be met.

Beyond its academic purpose, education serves a social and integrative function by promoting values such as tolerance, respect for diversity and peaceful conflict resolution. Those deprived, especially young and impressionable people, could lead to an increased risk of radicalisation.

It is important to stress that these possible pathways do not mean that refugees are inherently prone to extremism. Rather, they highlight the importance of the environment and conditions in which refugees find themselves. The key to reducing the risk of radicalisation, therefore, lies in improving integration, including decent living conditions, facilitating social interaction, and ensuring access to quality education and psychological support. Crucially, policies and rhetoric that further marginalise or demonise refugees should be avoided, as they can inadvertently contribute to the very radicalisation they seek to prevent.

In summary, the integration of refugees into the host society plays a crucial role in preventing the potential emergence of extremist beliefs. Even if most refugees do not engage in extremist activities, the harsh conditions they often face, both during their flight and in the host countries, can create fertile ground for the spread of radical ideologies. Factors such as social exclusion, limited socioeconomic opportunities and lack of access to quality education can contribute to a sense of marginalisation and disenfranchisement, making some people more vulnerable to extremist narratives.

Investing in the integration of refugees is not only a humanitarian imperative but also contributes to the stability and security of host societies. It is important to remember that refugees are often the most direct victims of extremism and violence; they deserve support and understanding, not being received with mistrust and stigmatisation. Therefore, our collective efforts should focus on creating a supportive environment that upholds the dignity and rights of refugees while protecting the security and the very unity of host societies. Through such efforts, we can disrupt potential pathways to extremism and contribute to a safer, more inclusive world.

Works Cited:

  • Hasselbach, C. (2020, 08 25). Five years on: How Germany’s refugee policy has fared. Retrieved from DW:
  • Europe, T. E. (2019, 04 18). Challenges of Syrian Refugees in Germany. Retrieved from The Excellence Center in Europe:
  • Atran, S. (2019, 12 02). This Is Your Brain on Terrorism. The Science Behind a Death Wish. Retrieved from Foreign Affairs: 
  • Brooks, M. (2019). The importance of using reflective practice when working with refugees, asylum seekers and survivors of torture within IAPT. The Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, 12, 1- 17