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I just woke up and read through most of the hundreds of comments on my last few posts. Thanks to the people who left such kind comments about me. As for those of you who said mean things, I hate you. I’m going on a hunger strike until you give me a safe space where no one will ever say mean things.
Just kidding. But don’t you keep talking about my granny that way.
I’m not sure whether I’m making any progress on changing minds, but this is what I’m understanding from some of your comments, so perhaps I’m understanding (some) of your positions better. At least for some of you, it seems, the anger isn’t about the Syrian refugees per se. It’s about seven years’ worth of anger and frustration with a failed president, the damage he’s done and is doing to us domestically and around the world, and a sense that no matter what he’s for, at this point, we’re against it, because we simply don’t trust him.
I’m with you almost all the way on that, frankly. I don’t know if anyone here’s more angry about our Syria policy — or our foreign policy, generally — than I am. I never dreamt we could have a president whose instincts on foreign policy could be so systematically catastrophic. I’m with you all the way to the last part of the argument, which is that if the president is in favor of accepting these refugees, it’s wrong.
Even stopped clocks, etc.
Before I make the case that there’s something in it for us, start with the basics. Including the internally displaced, some 12 million Syrians have fled their homes. Half children. Four million Syrians are, formally, refugees; most are in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Children affected by the Syrian conflict are at particularly high risk of illness, malnourishment, abuse, or exploitation. Millions have been forced to quit school. Winter is coming: Refugees in settlements have fewer resources than ever before; they need warm clothes, shoes, blankets, heaters, and fuel.
More than 3,200 refugees have perished this year.
More than 240,000 Syrians have been killed, including 12,000 children. A million more have been wounded or permanently disabled. The war has become even more deadly since foreign powers joined the conflict. Syria’s infrastructure has collapsed: Its healthcare, education systems, and infrastructure have been destroyed; the economy is shattered. Syrian children, in particular, have lost their families, suffered appalling injuries, missed years of schooling, seen unimaginable violence and brutality. Warring parties forcibly recruit children to serve as fighters, human shields, and in support roles.
A quick point: Some believe Arab and Muslim countries haven’t admitted refugees. This isn’t true. They’ve not only admitted them, but admitted them to the point that it’s placing huge strain on the stability of their own societies, which could cause this crisis — bad enough as it is — to spread.
It’s not even true that the Gulf countries haven’t admitted them. What is true is that the GCC states aren’t signatories to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, so they don’t recognise “refugees” as a legal category. This makes it hard to figure out how many refugees (as we’d understand the term) are there. This study suggests that it’s probably quite a few.
But the main countries to which the refugees have fled are Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. Are they safe there? Safer than in Syria, certainly. But in Jordan, at least, given the size of its population, the scale of the influx to Jordan is equivalent to about thirty-three million Mexicans entering the United States. The refugee burden is creating huge social strain, and it puts the greatest demands on the most vulnerable Jordanians.
Food is running out in the camps. The World Food Programme had to drop a third of the Syrian refugees from its program in the Middle Eastern this year, including 229,000 of them in Jordan: The refugees there stopped receiving food aid in September. Forty percent of these children aren’t in school.
Consider the statistics on Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The total population of Lebanon is 4.467 million. It’s accepted more than a million Syrian refugees, so refugees are now 25 percent of Lebanon’s population. Just over half are in school. Only 12 percent have access to health care.
In 2015, according to the Vulnerability Assessment for Syrian refugees in Lebanon,
The number of meals eaten each day by children and adults fell compared to 2014. In one in three households (vs one in four in 2014) members consumed just one or no cooked meals the previous day. Children under five consumed fewer than three cooked meals the previous day in 65% of households versus 41% in 2014. More than a quarter of households (27%) were unable to cook at least once a day on average (7% more than in 2014), mainly due to lack of food to cook (88%) or lack of fuel (12%) …
An even lower percentage of 6-17 month old infants had the ‘minimum acceptable diet’ in 2015 in comparison to 2014 (3% versus 4%). The main limiting factors were insufficient number of meals (83% did not have the minimum acceptable meal frequency) and poor diet diversity.
Most of the refugees are underage. Food is the most immediate priority, but if you think the Middle East is a hellhole now, imagine what it will be like if these kids get no education. A whole generation will grow up with no skills; they’ll be illiterate, innumerate, and completely unable to rebuild their country if ever the war ends. And the worst part is that the only friendly faces they’ll see — if they don’t see ours — will be Salafi preachers posing as “aid workers.” Children imprint on the people who feed them. That’s how kids work.
We can’t wait five more years to take care of them— five years of a child’s school life is forever; five years of childhood malnutrition will create mental retardation; these will turn into adults who will never be able to create and live in a remotely stable country; and they’ll be a time bomb that makes the era we’re living through now look almost nostalgic.
So obviously, the first priority is getting food and money to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and the other host countries to help them with the refugees. This is a higher priority than accepting 10,000 refugees ourselves, which is — in truth — a drop in the bucket. It would of course mean everything to those refugees, but it is not nearly enough.
It’s absolutely correct that according to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, the bulk of the refugees in camps in neighboring countries have already received asylum. But what the US is proposing is refugee resettlement. This is a distinct category. Here’s how the European Refugee Fund explains it.
These are the resettlement submission categories:
LEGAL AND/OR PHYSICAL PROTECTION NEEDS of the refugee in the country of refuge (this includes a threat of refoulement);
SURVIVORS OF TORTURE AND/OR VIOLENCE, in particular where repatriation or the conditions of asylum could result in further traumatization and/or heightened risk; or where appropriate treatment is not available;
MEDICAL NEEDS, in particular life-saving treatment that is unavailable in the country of refuge;
WOMEN AND GIRLS AT RISK, who have protection problems particular to their gender;
FAMILY REUNIFICATION, when resettlement is the only means to reunite refugee family members who, owing to refugee flight or displacement, are separated by borders or entire continents;
CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS AT RISK, where a best interests determination supports resettlement;
LACK OF FORESEEABLE ALTERNATIVE DURABLE SOLUTIONS, which generally is relevant only when other solutions are not feasible in the foreseeable future, when resettlement can be used strategically, and/or when it can open possibilities for comprehensive solutions.
Ideally, in the UNHCR’s view, emergency cases, which typically involve immediate life-threatening situations, should depart for resettlement in seven days; urgent cases should depart within six weeks; and normal priority cases should be resettled within a year.
This is not what happens, of course.
The US prioritizes admitting the most vulnerable Syrians, including female-headed households, children, survivors of torture, and people with severe medical conditions. We do have a great deal of experience screening and admitting large numbers of refugees from chaotic environments, including places where our intelligence is limited. This experience antedates the Obama administration. It dates to the Cold War. We have, at least, some bureaucratic continuity and institutional knowledge about how to do this. The DHS has full discretion to deny admission before a refugee comes to the the United States. When in doubt, DHS denies applications on national security grounds and the refugee never sets foot on American soil. (By the way, the Tsarnaev brothers did not enter the U.S. by this process; they arrived in the country on tourist visas and later applied for political asylum. People who arrive on tourist visas are unlikely to trigger screening remotely as rigorous as those who apply for refugee resettlement. And the 9/11 hijackers used tourist and business visas to get into the country.)
So to say that we have no idea who these people are is an exaggeration. It’s much, much more likely that we’re turning away eligible people who were unable to prove their bona fides — refugees often flee without the documents and paperwork required to establish a compelling case file. It’s also very likely that those most at risk of refoulement, most in need of emergency protection (be it for medical reasons or because they’re at risk of rape or starvation) will not be able to complete this arduous process in time to save their lives.
One more point: The Federal Refugee Resettlement Program was created by the The Refugee Act of 1980. It caps the number of refugees that may be admitted at 50,000 per fiscal year, so even if used to its maximum capacity, it wouldn’t significantly alter the ethnic balance of the United States (pop. 318.9 million).
To see what’s in it for us, first look at what’s in it for the refugees in the countries of first asylum. Resettlement helps not only those who are resettled, but those who aren’t. It encourages host states to continue to offer asylum and adhere to the principle of non-refoulement. It affects the behavior and attitudes of countries of asylum; it encourages them to provide refugees with access to health care, employment, education, freedom of movement and residence; it decongests camps; it reduces demands on scarce resources; it reduces rape; it increases enrollment in education and vocational training. It facilitates remittances from resettled refugees to those in countries of asylum. Experience from many conflict zones shows clearly that the longer refugees are left to languish in despair in camps, the more prone they become to radicalization. Our acceptance of refugees says to both these refugees and the countries hosting them that we have skin in the game; we’re watching what’s happening; we aren’t leaving them on their own to drown.
Another key point: ISIS hates the refugees. As Aaron Zelin, documents amply at the excellent site Jihadology, the exodus of refugees
… is anathema to ISIS, undermining the group’s message that its self-styled caliphate is a refuge. If it were a refuge, then hundreds of thousands of people would surely be settling in its lands instead of risking their lives on miserable journeys to Europe. The hostile reaction to refugees, therefore, only bolsters ISIS’s contentions and risks spurring future, avoidable tensions.
As for ISIS’s actual gestures regarding refugees, the group released twelve videos between September 16 and 19 aimed at inserting itself into a discussion highlighted by deaths at sea and, especially, the crushing image of Alan Kurdi, the child who washed up dead on a Turkish beach. These videos were released by the group’s respective “provinces” in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen and aimed both at warning potential refugees of the risks and costs of traveling to Europe and urging them to take refuge in its caliphate.
For example, in its video from Wilayat Salah al-Din (Iraq), ISIS argues that Muslims should leave the infidel’s lands for the lands of Islam, but not vice versa, and that happiness can only be found in the ISIS caliphate. Moreover, in a message from its Wilayat al-Janub (Iraq), ISIS declares that Muslims cannot live or seek refuge in non-Muslim lands and that doing so amounts to apostasy, in effect legitimizing the refugees’ spilt blood. ISIS’s Wilayat al-Furat, on the Syria-Iraq border, militates against migration on the grounds that refugees would be subject to human laws rather than sharia. As a result, according to Wilayat al-Raqqa (Syria), the migrants’ children would abandon Islam — even though Europe’s Muslim population has continued growing in recent decades through various waves of migration. Another claim holds that Europe is only accepting Muslim refugees as a tactic to increase the Shiite, Druze, and Christian population to defeat ISIS in Syria. Based in northwestern Syria, ISIS’s Wilayat al-Barakah notes further that accepting refugees allegedly forces Muslims to work for Europe’s interests, thereby weakening Islam.
ISIS wants nothing more than for them all to be forced back into Syria, where they can either kill or conscript them. And this is happening now: Facing European pressure and bribery, Turkey is pushing refugees back into Syria — in direct contradiction to the principle of non-refoulement:
During the second half of October 2015, Human Rights Watch interviewed 51 Syrians in Turkey who had fled airstrikes and other violence in Syria. … They described men, women, and terrified children trying to clamber at smuggler crossings across steep terrain at night for many hours surrounded by gunfire.
“Turkey’s border closure is forcing pregnant women, children, the elderly, the sick, and the injured to run the gantlet of Turkish border officials to escape the horrors of Syria’s war,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch.
It’s utterly short-sighted. What do you think will happen to them when they’re forced back? They’ll either be killed or they’ll be conscripted to fight for ISIS. What kind of strategy is it to hand ISIS the conscripts it wants?
So what’s in it for us? What’s in it for us from a strictly realpolitik perspective is that — in my view — we need to extirpate ISIS, root and branch. I hope I’ve convinced you that they do mean to kill us. Some of you were dubious when I said this before, but it sounds as if you’re mostly sold on that one now. And I hope I’ve convinced you that only a total border closure of a kind that’s simply not feasible could prevent them from reaching the United States. The way they’d be apt to reach the US is through a normal tourist or business visa, not the refugee resettlement program.
Even if you don’t agree that our aim should be to annihilate them, surely you’d agree that we don’t want the Caliphate to spread, as its apt to do if any more of this region collapses into complete chaos and civil war. The refugee crisis is putting a sufficient burden on neighboring states that this is a not a possibility to be ruled out.
Here’s something else that’s in it for us: The refugees are a rich source of human intelligence about Syria — which we desperately need: The FBI seems to think so, anyway. (I assume they approved this message.)
The Syrian refugees offer a rich pool to enhance our domestic human source capabilities, and have several advantages over contacts developed abroad. For one thing, the FBI — the agency responsible for domestic intelligence — already has established relationships within many immigrant communities. These existing relationships allow the FBI to more easily build and vet new ones with newly arrived populations, allowing us to create a wider intelligence “net” with which to gather information and uncover potential domestic plots. In addition, refugees, like the immigrant populations they are integrating into, have a personal reason to help the U.S. — they are grateful to be here and have a vested interest in helping the country they now call home. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example, thousands of Iraqis living in the United States provided valuable information that assisted intelligence and military on the ground in Iraq. Last, but most important, they can easily see, hear and speak with the people we most want to know about in the U.S., which is something that we can’t replicate through mass data collection alone.
Another strategic point: to defeat ISIS (not just “contain” them), we need the cooperation of the states neighboring Syria. It makes perfect sense to me that Turks and Jordanians are outraged to hear, “We’re not taking in a single refugee. We’re too precious for that.” It makes even more sense to me that the Lebanese feel that way: They’ve taken in a truly destabilizing number of people, and they have recent experience of a civil war borne of the undermining of their own sectarian balance.
Fewer than 2,200 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the U.S. since the war broke out in 2011. We’re the world’s wealthiest and most powerful country, we seem to be saying — but we won’t do a thing about Assad; we’ll hit ISIS from the air every now and again when the mood strikes us, and we can’t even handle taking in a fraction of the number of refugees that Lebanon has. Why should anyone listen to us about anything if we either hate and fear the Syrian people so much that we would allow their country to be destroyed, and wouldn’t even allow 10,000 refugees from this conflict to live among us? Or if we believe ourselves too incompetent to differentiate between refugees fleeing from war criminals and terrorists from war criminals and terrorists themselves? That message doesn’t even suggest “leading from behind,” it suggests “let anyone else lead — these Americans are utterly hapless.” That’s a dangerous message to send, even if it’s true. And if someone else leads — and someone else will, because international relations abhors a vacuum — don’t complain if the world is modeled in their image; because it will be. Headline yesterday:
Meanwhile, Turkey has shot down a Russian jet. (You may not care about Syria, but it cares about you.)
Admitting 10,000 refugees is a drop in the bucket. It is completely insufficient, from a humanitarian point of view. It will not save them all (although it would make all the difference in the world to them). But yes, it is an important gesture. People in that part of the world do believe, for good reason, that we’re powerful and wealthy enough to do something to help Syria if we choose to do so. But they see that we don’t choose to do so. It’s unreasonable to expect them to be sympathetic when we say that we don’t choose to help, and what’s more, we’re too scared of ISIS to allow any Syrian, however desperate, to come to America. The message comes through exactly as ISIS wants it to: We just hate them. That message makes it all the harder to mobilize our allies to go after ISIS, Al Qaeda, and their various affiliates. And if we don’t go after them, they will not be content to stay in place.
Is that enough?
But what else is in it for us? Well, there’s knowing we’re the country that saves families like this. That’s an anecdotal argument; I’m sure you can also find articles about Syrians who aren’t so winsome and aren’t clear about the principles of liberal democracy. But that’s really up to us: If we teach them how to be good Americans — if we insist upon it, in fact — I’ve got confidence that they’ll learn. We’ve assimilated more; we’ve assimilated weirder; we’ve assimilated worse.
And yes, it is grotesque to hear Obama lecture Republicans about how they should have compassion for Syrians. His foreign policy has been based on the principle of total bloodlessness toward them and an utter indifference to the destruction of their country, and he’s the one who might have been able to do something before this degenerated into hell on earth.
But a policy based on that principle isn’t improved when both parties jump on the bandwagon. That’s just doubling down on the cruelty and the strategic folly — and two wrongs don’t make a right.