Re-evaluate United States’ response to Syrian refugees
In the United States and Western Europe, Germany’s welcoming of Middle Eastern and North African refugees has come under fire in recent weeks following an incident on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Germany. Hundreds of young men reportedly sexually harassed and assaulted young women on the streets of Cologne. Conservative pundits in the U.S., many of whom already opposed the Obama administration’s decision to admit any refugees at all, pounced on this attack as vindication of their xenophobic prophecies. But this is completely blown out of proportion: according to a recent Bloomberg View article, “This year, Germany will probably take in more Syrians than the U.S. refugee total, even though it has a population one-quarter the size.”
While many in the U.S. and Europe have been outright xenophobic in their attitudes towards refugees, a legitimate conservative argument against admitting large numbers of refugees into the U.S. does exist. One of the best forms of this argument appears in Ross Douthat’s Jan. 9 New York Times column:
“For decades conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic have warned that Europe’s generous immigration policies, often pursued in defiance of ordinary Europeans’ wishes, threaten to destabilize the continent ... The issue isn’t just that immigrants are arriving in the hundreds of thousands rather than the tens of thousands. It’s that a huge proportion of them are teenage and twenty-something men.”
The notion here is that although our better angels — as Abraham Lincoln put it in his inaugural address — may tell us to value compassion over caution, assimilation does not happen overnight, and given the massive number of displaced persons across the Mediterranean region (including, according to UNHCR, 4.6 million people from Syria alone), it’s worth taking a step back before attempting to assimilate enormous subsets of entire nations.
In last week’s edition of the Justice, contributing writer Andrew Jacobson advanced another form of this argument: “Until America can be absolutely certain that refugees’ intentions are benign, allowing them U.S. entry would be imprudent and misguided.”
Perhaps the most glaring problem with Jacobson’s article — and indeed with the entire line of reasoning behind arguments like this —is the assumption that compassion and caution are somehow mutually exclusive. In conflating the “precedent” of the “European rape epidemic” with U.S. refugee policy, as Jacobson’s article puts it, advocates of this attitude conveniently leave out how incredibly stringent U.S. refugee policy actually is. According to a Nov. 17, 2015 article in TIME Magazine, only half of all applicants pass the screening process, which takes almost two years.
Each individual seeking asylum in the U.S. must first obtain a reference from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, see his or her case file reviewed by no less than nine U.S. government agencies and go through a “terrorist screening process”; of all the ways in which both benevolent and malevolent individuals can enter the U.S., the refugee process is the most stringent.
Jacobson calls these non-Western values “baggage.” The same thing has been said of virtually every immigrant and refugee group entering the United States since July 4, 1776, and this notion has been disabused by every faith and folk who have come to America and made this melting pot their home.
We learn from Jacobson that “it is a shame that the safety of Europe’s women is being sacrificed on the altar of humanitarianism and political correctness”; he supports this assertion by telling us that under Sharia law, men have more power than women and that some Muslim countries practice female genital mutilation, or FGM, and that therefore the ideals to which a “group of refugees are accustomed are incompatible with Western norms and values.”
There are many, many problems with linking these generalizations to U.S. refugee policy. First, although the treatment of women in many Muslim-majority countries is quite awful, we still accept both male and female migrants from all sorts of other countries with bad records on women’s rights, including many countries in South and Southeast Asia where human trafficking remains an enormous problem. Second, the Arab Spring has challenged traditional foundations of power across the Middle East, including between men and women; the New York Times editorial board asserts in a November 2012 article that “in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, [women] have been on the front lines of revolution….these nations will not succeed unless women are fully incorporated into political and economic life.”
Third, many Kurdish women, according to a March 2015 CNN article, are on the front lines of fighting the Islamic State, fighting against what so many refugees are fleeing from. Fourth, although FGM is absolutely atrocious, UNICEF and other reputable sources on the subject agree that the practice is most preponderant in the Sahel region of Africa, which isn’t actually where most refugees are coming from. But this doesn’t even matter, as the Arab Spring teaches us that the traditional practices of Muslim-majority countries are by no means representative of Islam as a whole.
Look to Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. Indonesia may have seen some setbacks in women’s rights since its last election, but former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it fairly well when she said in 2009 that “if you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity and women’s rights can co-exist, go to Indonesia.”
But not only that, given that current U.S. refugee policy prioritizes the elderly, women and children (around three-fourths of the refugees admitted, according to TIME, are children or over age 60), I’m not sure how hiding behind “concern for women” squares with what these refugees are fleeing from: a barbaric caliphate calling itself an “Islamic State” which keeps sex slaves, regularly gang-rapes women and young girls, and commits other atrocities too nauseating to even repeat on paper. If you are so inclined to check out these reports yourself, a Dec. 29, 2015 Reuters article discusses them in some depth.
A concern for our own security is real. An evaluation of Germany’s own assimilation strategies is justified.
A discussion on what the U.S. can do to actively defeat ISIS is ongoing. Indeed we could do even more to advance this discussion if Congress were to give President Obama an Authorization for the Use of Military Force. This discussion is imperative because, although our generosity and humanity is imperative, the long-term solution to this crisis lies in the defeat of ISIL and stabilization of the region.
But at no point does fear of the “other” mean that the other is actually fearsome. This is not the first time Americans have expressed fear of refugees — nor will it be the last. But our better angels are our smarter angels, too: In overcoming our fear of strangers from a strange land, we grow stronger as a people and strengthen our national security in the process.