Recent actions by the U.S. Congress to block all refugees from Iraq and Syria are the most blatant abandonment of victims of genocide and mass atrocities since the Holocaust. The risks cited by those who support the measure ignore the facts and forget that such a blanket ban carries its own risks.
First, let’s be clear, those who would be blocked by the proposed legislation include victims fleeing genocide. The U.S. Holocaust Museum in a recent bearing witness trip and report has found that the Islamic State “perpetrated genocide against the Yezidi people”. This is the first time since 2004, in response to the killing in Darfur, that the Museum has made such a declaration.
Those not facing immediate genocide are facing other mass atrocities including torture, rape, and the terror of barrel bombs. The Holocaust Museum report also found that ISIS militants have committed crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing against Christians, Turkmen, and other minority groups across northern Iraq.
Closing borders to refugees from Syria and Iraq also ignores one of the greatest challenges facing the world today. The world is facing the largest refugee crisis in modern times, and Iraq and Syria account for the greatest increase. Syria’s neighbors are overwhelmed. Lebanon has taken in over one million refugees meaning that one in every four people in the country is someone displaced from Syria. By contrast, the United States so far has taken in less than one percent of Syrian refugees.
It must also be noted that the blanket ban of refugees would overwhelmingly affect the most vulnerable, those who the U.S. refugee program, by design, prioritizes. Half of the more than 4 million Syrian refugees are children, as are half of the mere 2,000 Syrian refugees taken in by the United States so far. The rest of those taken in by the United States are largely women and persons over 60 years old, with many of the single males (those considered at highest risk of terrorism) being carefully determined, according to the White House, to be “especially vulnerable adults, such as survivors of torture, LGBT individuals, or those with disabilities.”
This sentiment is echoed by those who work most closely with refugees in the United States, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Their director of migration policy, Kevin Appleby, notes that “The vast majority (of refugees) are vulnerable families, women, children, elderly and they’re fleeing for their lives. They want what Americans want – protection for their children and a chance to live in safety.”
Refugees are the most vetted group of people to enter the United States. The refugee process involves numerous steps and cross-checks by several agencies including the State Department, Homeland Security, FBI, and the National Counterterrorism Center and takes between one and a half and two years. Of 785,000 refugees that have entered the United States since 9/11, only three have been arrested for planning terrorist activities. U.S. law agencies were well positioned to make these arrests and in reaction, vetting requirements have become even more stringent.
Yes, there is risk involved, but there is also risk involved with shutting U.S. borders to all Syrian and Iraqi refugees. The risks of accepting refugees must be measured against the risks of losing standing among allies, emboldening our enemies, and abandoning American values by turning our backs on those in greatest need.
Shutting our borders undermines U.S. standing in the world. The United States is asking its allies in Europe and the Middle East to do more to take in refugees and to combat ISIS, but such asks are undermined when the United States shows it is unwilling to do the very things it is asking of them.
According to the United Nations, Turkey is hosting half of the more than 4 million total refugees. Lebanon and Jordan are hosting 1.1 million and 630,000 respectively. Canada will take in 25,000 Syrian refugees in the next year and France, in the wake of the Paris attacks, announced it would take in 30,000 more refugees.
We are a nation of refugees and have benefited greatly for it. Much of what goodwill exists in the world toward the United States stems from that openness. A blanket ban on refugees from Syria and Iraq and the kind of anti-Muslim rhetoric that has played out among U.S. politicians of late threaten to play into just the kind of propaganda that ISIS is spreading about the United States as a heartless monolith that will never accept Muslims.
The vast majority of refugees are peaceful contributors to American society with notable refugees and children of refugees including former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and Albert Einstein, to name a few.
We are a nation built by immigrants and refugees. By denying them, we are denying ourselves. America will be weaker for abandoning its core values. We cannot take in everyone from everywhere, but we should be doing all that we can to take in at least the most vulnerable, not slamming the door in the face of those who face genocide and mass atrocities.
The rhetoric of today harkens back to one of the darkest days in U.S. history when pre-holocaust xenophobic sentiments led to the turning away of a ship of more than 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Nazi Germany. It is easy to get caught up in the politics of fear following the recent global terrorist attacks, but looking back such moves as the recent Congressional action to abandon all Syrian and Iraqi refugees may be judged to be just as dark a day.
But it is not too late to prevent this. The bill that just passed the House of Representatives now goes to the Senate. We need to make sure the voices of reason and compassion are not overshadowed by the politics of fear.
Tell the Senate: Accept More Syrian Refugees
The attacks in France are a sober reminder of what the people in Syria, Iraq, and other countries are all fleeing from: the threats of terrorism, mass atrocities, and genocide.
But instead of standing with those under attack and offering our help, callous politicians are calling on the United States to shut our doors on those who need us most.
The United States has been a sanctuary for refugees fleeing persecution from all around the world. Keep this proud tradition alive, and help counter growing calls against Syrian refugees by sending your member of Congress a message.
With the voices of fear, hatred, and intolerance on the rise, our voices of compassion and reason are needed now more than ever.