14 October 2016

Syrian Refugees and Why We Must Welcome Them (and not be scared)

As the election season is finally winding down, I’ve been very concerned about the amount of misinformation about Syrian refugees that has been said during the campaigns. After a number of different online discussions about this, I had to sit down and type this whole thing out.  

What is a refugee?

The term “refugee” can be used in a couple of different ways.  Its broadest meaning is someone who has been forced to flee their home because of persecution, war, natural disaster, etc.  However, it also has a narrower definition when talking about refugees entering the US.  A person is considered a refugee if they have fled their country for similar reasons listed above and have been formally recognized as a refugee by the UN.  They are defined and protected in international law and have very specific rules regarding their movement.  Most refugees return home when the conflict ends, and most of the rest stay in their host country permanently.  Fewer than one percent of refugees apply for resettlement in a third country. http://www.unrefugees.org/what-is-a-refugee/

What is an asylee?

While asylees might sound a lot like refugees when the word is used informally, they actually have a very different legal status.  UN-defined refugees cannot enter the US as asylees and must go through the regular refugee process. An asylee is someone who arrives in another country and asks for asylum.  Asylees have a very different entry process than refugees. https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/refugees-asylum/asylum/affirmative-asylum-process

What is the process for entering the US as a refugee?  

Basically, a refugee who cannot return home and whose host country cannot accommodate her permanently can apply for resettlement.  The UN chooses which country would be the best fit for her based on the requirements of the country and begins the process of gathering data and documents.  The UN has extensive experience working with refugees since the end of WWII and is used to processing people who have little documentation, something that is common to many refugees, although Syrian refugees generally have more documentation than most refugee populations. If the US is selected as a place for the refugee to resettle, the vetting and screening begins. Syrian refugees get additional review from DHS that other refugees don’t have to go through after Congress voted to increase the vetting at the end of 2015.  Background checks, fingerprinting, medical screening, and interviews all happen over the course of many months.  https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/11/20/infographic-screening-process-refugee-entry-united-states

How many Syrian refugees are in the US?

Up until fiscal year 2016, very few Syrians had gone through the entire process and entered the US. President Obama raised the quota of Syrian refugees that we would accept to 10,000 for FY 2016.  That goal was met and Obama is setting FY 2017’s quota at 110,000. The president has unilateral control over the number of refugees allowed into the US from any given country.

How many Syrian refugees does Hillary Clinton want to allow into the US?  How many does Trump want to allow in?

At the end of 2015 Hillary Clinton proposed raising the number to 65,000. However, as mentioned above, Obama’s current FY 2017 proposal is 110,000.  Hillary Clinton hasn’t updated her proposal to my knowledge.  In the VP debate, Mike Pence stated “Donald Trump and I are committed to suspending the Syrian refugee program...” so we can assume that Trump would allow zero Syrian refugees into the US.

Why shouldn’t we require more vetting for Syrian refugees?  Wouldn’t that keep us safer?

The main reason is that it would make it more difficult for people who need help to enter the US without any proven national security benefit. Congress already mandated extra screening for Syrian refugees at the end of last year. People in the US have not been in danger because of refugees in the past, even when there were less restrictive vetting processes in place.  When those less restrictive rules were in place, we accepted Afghan, Somali, Palestinian, and Iraqi refugees and Americans were not put in danger as a result.  The system has worked and is working.  Nearly 785,000 refugees have been admitted to the US since 2001 and only about about 12 “have been arrested or removed from the US due to terrorism concerns that existed prior to their resettlement in the US.” That is a very acceptable level of risk. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/11/19/the-viral-claim-that-not-one-refugee-resettled-since-911-has-been-arrested-on-domestic-terrorism-charges/

Weren’t the Tsarnaev brothers refugees?  And Ahmad Khan Rahami?

The Tsarnaev brothers were asylees, not refugees.  I cannot find out whether Rahami was a refugee.  In both cases, the boys/men were radicalized in the US and were US citizens. Vetting obviously cannot predict future risk, especially in small children.

Haven’t some Syrian refugees been admitted without all the vetting they’re supposed to get?

No.  Because of the delays that the Congress-mandated additional vetting for Syrian refugees caused, in early summer of 2016 more refugee officers were sent to interview applicants to help speed up the process so that all 10,000 refugees would be processed before the end of September 2016.  The refugees still had their required screening, including the extra screening.

Didn’t FBI Director James Comey say that the US cannot vet Syrian refugees?

There has been a lot of reporting that Comey doesn’t think the vetting process is safe, but that is not true.  While Comey obviously stated that he personally cannot ensure that there is no risk associated with any given refugee, he has stated that the vetting process has improved dramatically and that he believes it is adequate.  Also, several other agencies besides the FBI vet all Syrian refugees, including extra vetting only applied to Syrians.  There are no guarantees but there are many, many safeguards.

Isn’t it Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s fault that we have this Syrian refugee crisis?

This is a misrepresentation of the situation in Syria.  While President Obama may have been able to do more to end the conflict in Syria, it is impossible to know what the results of any foreign intervention might have been.  Also, there are many actors in the Middle East and all might share in the blame in different ways, including George W. Bush.  But the bulk of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the Assad regime and trying to blame this on Obama and Hillary Clinton is not reasonable.

Why don’t we create safe zones for refugees inside Syria?

It would be very difficult to ensure the safety of the millions of people living in the safe zones, plus provide food, shelter, clothing, and employment for all of those people.  It would require a significant military and financial commitment. Our efforts would be better spent on resolving the conflict in Syria so people can return home and on welcoming those who cannot return home.  

Why don’t Arab/Muslim countries take in the refugees?

This is a common charge that completely misrepresents the refugee population in the Middle East.  Nearly all Syrian refugees are currently living in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey. All except Turkey are Arab countries (Turkey is Turkish with an unrelated language) and all are Muslim-majority, although Lebanon has a significant Christian minority.  It is simply incorrect to state that Muslim and Arab countries aren’t doing their part.  However, it is very true that some Muslim countries aren’t allowing Syrian refugees to be resettled in their countries, including the wealthy Gulf countries.  But there are enough Syrian refugees who need resettlement that the US would still need to accept refugees even if every wealthy Muslim country accepted refugees.

Why should we take in these people?

The most important reason is because they are human beings who need help.  The US also has a moral obligation to help Syrian refugees because of our historical involvement in the Middle East. From a national security perspective, it is very important that we do all we can to relieve the pressure on Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey as they host millions of Syrian refugees.  These four countries are all in somewhat precarious political and financial situations and the influx of so many refugees has contributed to their instability.  Resettling refugees might help make neighboring countries’ situations less difficult.

Why should we spend our limited resources on refugees?

Besides our moral obligation, the US is among the wealthiest countries in the world.  We do have the resources to help refugees.  It is also very important to remember that 56 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted in 10 countries with a combined GDP of less than 2.5 percent of global GDP.  If these countries are doing so much with so little, we can certainly share some of our resources. http://www.amnestyusa.org/research/reports/tackling-the-global-refugee-crisis-from-shirking-to-sharing-responsibility

There are no absolute promises that any person in the US or applying to enter the US will never commit an act of terrorism, no matter their race, religion, or nationality. Welcoming refugees obviously does involve some level of risk. However, the actual risk has been proven to be so low as to be almost non-existent. Instead of directing our energy toward shutting down the Syrian refugee program, we should make it possible to welcome more refugees.

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