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  • Writer's pictureRutger Birnie

Should We Deport Neo-Nazis and ISIS Sympathisers?

A few months ago, the French government responded to the beheading of school teacher Samuel Paty, who had shown pupils satirical cartoons of the prophet Mohamed, by announcing its intention to deport 213 foreign residents who were on a government watchlist and suspected of holding extreme religious beliefs. Radical Islamists and so-called ‘hate imams’ have long been targeted for territorial removal by many Western democracies. But far-right extremists are now also frequently deported. The week before Paty’s murder, for instance, Ukraine deported two American citizens who belonged to the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division for allegedly attempting to establish a local branch of this group and trying to join a far-right Ukrainian military unit to gain combat experience.

Deportation has proven a highly morally controversial state practice. Large segments of the electorate in many democracies tend to support strict expulsion regimes for those who are seen as not (or no longer) having the right to remain in the country. But moral theorists and social activists have for decades problematised the forced removal to the (supposed) home countries of failed asylum applicants, irregular migrants, and those whose residence permits are revoked after changes in their economic situation, pointing at the significant harms deportation imposes on people who may in some cases have broken immigration rules but are otherwise ‘innocent’ and bear no ill will. Even deportations on the basis of ‘regular’ criminal convictions face criticism, as such removals are usually triggered automatically upon sentencing without considering the nature or gravity of the offence.

However, neither anti-deportation activists nor moral theorists tend to give much attention to extremists when highlighting the pitfalls of deportation. Such individuals may garner little public sympathy, even from those who are generally opposed to the idea that territorial expulsion is a suitable sanction for certain behaviours. Many might indeed feel that, if any deportations are legitimate, it is those that aim to protect liberal societies against those who try to subvert them or challenge their core values. Yet the cases of those facing deportation on grounds of extremism frequently illustrate precisely the moral faults of deportation policy in liberal states.

There are at least three reasons to feel moral unease around liberal states’ assertive rediscovery of their expulsion powers to deal with radicals. The first is about proportionality. For any sanction that professes to abide by liberal norms, the costs to the offender must be proportional to the offence committed. It is noteworthy here that the range of acts that can be classified as extremist or anti-liberal is rather wide. Attempts to overthrow a legitimate liberal-democratic regime, preparing or carrying out terrorist attacks, and racially-motivated or homophobic harassment and violence clearly fall under this header. Deliberately facilitating or inciting such actions can equally count as extremist, but it is notoriously difficult to decide when precisely extremist speech falls under incitement. Liberal states have by no means restricted themselves to deporting only the evidently dangerous extremists. Lutz Bachmann, founder of the far-right anti-Islam movement Pegida was deported from the UK in 2018 even before he was due to speak at Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park on the basis that his presence was ‘not conducive to the public good’.

[T]he cases of those facing deportation on grounds of extremism frequently illustrate precisely the moral faults of deportation policy in liberal states.

Do the risks that these actions pose outweigh the costs deportation imposes on the extremist? When someone genuinely threatens the survival of liberal-democratic institutions, surely they do. In regimes where institutions safeguarding democracy and the rule of law are relatively unstable this may be a strong argument in favour of deportation. For Ukraine, there seems to be a real risk that its war-torn eastern Donbass region is becoming a fertile training ground for white supremacist extremists from across the world, which could trigger a collapse of the country’s nascent institutions.

In consolidated liberal democracies this is a less convincing rationale. Even in the case of France, the European country most affected by radical Islamist terrorist violence, it is hard to argue that the territorial presence of those who openly support ISIS or other radical groups threatens the survival of the democratic regime. Nonetheless, the practice of deporting extremists may serve other important goals in such contexts. Even when the actions of extremists do not threaten the stability of institutions, they may well (through for instance the planning of violent attacks) threaten the basic rights and liberties of citizens and non-citizen residents, such as their right to life and security, or their right to free expression. Moreover, deporting extremists can serve the important communicative goals of conveying the state’s liberal-democratic commitments and reassuring members of already marginalised groups who are directly challenged by extremists that the state is serious about safeguarding their freedom and equality.

However, in the absence of an existential risk to liberal democracy or a real and imminent terrorist threat, such benefits often do not weigh up against the costs and risks imposed upon the deported and their loved ones. These costs are most likely to be disproportionate when liberal democracies deport people to illiberal, unstable, and/or poor countries where they might face severe destitution, persecution, torture or even death. But even those returned to countries where their basic needs are met might face heavy burdens. Unlike incarceration, expulsion is not aimed at rehabilitation: deportations on grounds of extremism are usually paired with lengthy re-entry bans, sometimes even life-long bans. Deporting someone from their place of residence thus indefinitely severs their connections to people they shared their life with (which is not only burdensome for them but also for these loved ones) and to the life projects they were pursuing there. Of course, such costs do not invariably outweigh the benefits of deporting an extremist individual, but they must be taken into account.

The second ground for moral unease with the practice of deporting extremists concerns the risk that this highly coercive instrument is abused by those in power. The most blatant form of abuse occurs when governments deport those whose presence or speech is merely politically inconvenient by falsely painting them as radicals. The best-known historical example of this is probably the fierce campaign in the early 20th century by the US government to identify and remove ‘radical’ foreigners from the US, which famously resulted in the expulsion of a wide range of politically active aliens including not only communists and anarchists but also labour organisers, Chinese anti-imperialist and foreign-born Black activists. Some see echoes of this in the contemporary context, especially when it comes to the summary expulsion of a large number of Muslim residents from the US in the immediate wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or in more recent deportations of Islamic preachers from European countries that are prompted by media stories and based on ‘guilt by association’.

Transferring residents who cause problems in one society to another society, where they will regularly cause similar if not worse problems, may amount to a shirking of the deporting state’s responsibility to rehabilitate those who committed offences on its territory.

The determined focus on Muslims of many Western states points at another potentially problematic use of extremist deportation. Even when all those targeted have indeed engaged in properly extremist acts, it may still be the case that a government specifically deports radicals of particular stripes while others who engage in equally serious extremist acts, and who are equally deportable, are allowed to remain. This discriminatory application is also a form of political abuse that renders the broader policy illegitimate, even if all individual deportations could be justified if the deportation laws had not been applied in a discriminatory fashion.

The potential of abuse of deportation power is especially acute as legal provisions allowing for the deportation of extremists tend to have vague and open-ended formulations and thereby leave an unusual amount of discretion to the executive branch of government. Therefore, even in the absence of pervasive abuse of the blatant type, the mere potential for abuse and the opacity around the precise grounds for extremist deportation may make foreign residents, who already tend to have fewer avenues of political voice available to them than their citizen co-residents, become hesitant to publicly voice their views or become politically active, even when these views fall within the bounds of what should be tolerated within a liberal democracy, for fear that any views that might be controversial or misconstrued lead to their expulsion. Such self-censorship not only entails costs for the foreign residents themselves by decreasing the probability that their views and interests will be taken into account by those in power, but also for the society as a whole by undermining the democratic legitimacy of its policies and reducing the quality of political decision-making through curtailing the diversity of epistemic perspectives feeding into it.

A third moral concern with the practice of deporting extremists is that the practice might be unfair to their countries of citizenship, who are required under international law to accept these individuals back. Transferring residents who cause problems in one society to another society, where they will regularly cause similar if not worse problems, may amount to a shirking of the deporting state’s responsibility to rehabilitate those who committed offences on its territory. Indeed, sometimes the country doing the deporting bears considerable responsibility for the radicalisation of a foreign resident through complicity or negligence, especially when the extremist has spent a significant part of their childhood in the deporting country, for these are the years during which states can exert a large influence on the development of someone’s political views and dispositions through the education system.

Moreover, when countries make the path to citizenship for foreign residents unduly difficult, it is then clearly problematic if they benefit from this injustice by deporting people who would not be eligible for deportation had the deporting state implemented fair naturalisation rules. Italy, for instance, has used deportation of extremists on a larger scale than most other European countries (almost exclusively in relation to Islamists), but this is facilitated by its restrictive citizenship laws, which has unjustly left most second-generation immigrants without Italian nationality and therefore vulnerable to expulsion.

[W]e should hold our governments accountable when deportations violate liberal-democratic principles not only when the would-be deportees are sympathetic and easy to frame as ‘deserving’, but also when they are bothersome bigots.

Of course, the objection of interstate unfairness only has force when the deporting state has a greater responsibility for the extremist individual in question than the receiving state. In cases where countries of citizenship have actively contributed to their expatriate citizen’s extremist acts abroad or negligently failed to prevent them, deportation is not only not unfair but arguably an appropriate way of holding the receiving state accountable for its moral failures. Even in such cases where expatriate citizens were radicalised in their country of residence rather than their country of citizenship, it bears mentioning that their radicalisation may in some cases still have been influenced heavily by the latter’s agents. The ‘success’ of the Saudi government’s decades-long funding of radical Wahhabi organisations in countries throughout Asia, Africa and Europe is a case in point.

A final way in which insisting on a state’s formal responsibility to take back their extremist nationals may be unfair concerns the (cumulative) effect of the practice, when it undermines the stability or security of the receiving country. For instance, the deportations of Afghans from European countries that have resumed in recent years seem to have provided a steady stream of recruits for the Taliban, as many of these individuals are young single males who struggle to find employment and housing upon arrival, thereby undermining the already fragile position of the elected and internationally backed Afghani government. When these individuals already hold extremist views, the risk that they will contribute to further destabilising the country is even more acute. If deporting states are better able to address the risks posed by foreign extremists within their societies than their countries of citizenship would be if the foreign extremists were sent there, it seems not only unfair but indeed unwise to do so.

These objections do not, to be clear, entail that deporting extremists is categorically unjustifiable. But they do suggest that governments of liberal democracies, if their appeal to liberal-democratic values to legitimise their deportation practices is sincere, must accept fitting restraints on their own expulsion powers to truly safeguard these values and the institutions that embody them, both at home and abroad. In a paper I am co-authoring with Bouke de Vries, we argue that this would involve restricting deportation on grounds of extremism to cases where someone has been found guilty by a criminal court of a clearly circumscribed extremist offence, proportionality testing that weighs the costs to the deportee against the protective and communicative functions served by the deportation, and ensuring fairness towards receiving countries. And as citizens of such countries, we should hold our governments accountable when deportations violate liberal-democratic principles not only when the would-be deportees are sympathetic and easy to frame as ‘deserving’, but also when they are bothersome bigots.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.


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