Today the world is host to 60 million displaced people, more than at any time during World War II. Nearly a quarter of whom are fleeing the Syrian crisis alone. Conventional wisdom would tell you that the majority of these people are fleeing to Europe, are stealing jobs, are diluting culture, or worse, committing terrorism.
This Western bias is misleading—only four percent of displaced Syrians have attempted to reach Europe, even fewer the United States.
Almost all Syrian refugees have been taken in by neighboring states. Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey have been pushed past their capacity, and are in need of global security and economic support, or face risk of severe spill over from Syria’s civil war. If we have learned anything from the twelve years of Western intervention in the Middle East, it is that promoting preventive policy is far less costly than attempting to spur democracy and nation-building.
Yet, after failing in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, it seems that those on both sides of the Atlantic are more readily driven by fear politics than taking a measured and balanced approach to the refugee crisis. Islamophobia reigns supreme, as we have seen a marked rise in anti-refugee rhetoric in response to the Paris attacks. In Europe, far-right politicians are calling for borders to be sealed, stoking fears that amongst those fleeing plight, many are planning attacks on the continent.
In America, the response is equally unfounded.
Following Texas Governor Gregg Abbot’s letter to President Obama declaring that Texas would not accept Syrian refugees, thirty more states followed suit. All but two Republican presidential candidates have called to not permit entry for Syrian refugees. The two excluded, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, would allow refugees, but only Christians who do not stand in ideological opposition to American values. Leading Republican Candidate Dr. Ben Carson came out in opposition to accepting refugees, sending a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan asking him to shepherd through Congress a bill which would halt the United States acceptance of any Syrians, and stating that we should put all current refugees under constant surveillance.
Of the Democrats, Former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Former Maryland Governor of Martin O’Malley came out in support of the White House’s proposal to accept 65,000 refugees. However, Senator Bernie Sanders, who has already been questioned about his foreign policy skill, stated during last Saturday’s Democratic Debate that he does not know “what the magic number is.”
As of now, this means that there is an eighty-three percent chance that whomever is elected to the Office of Presidency will seek to isolate America from the world stage. While there are arguments to be made for more limited use of American force overseas, now is not the time for American leadership to shy away from our democratic values and principles. Furthermore, if we are to embrace a narrower grand strategy in the Middle East, we are risking the prospect of radicalization and increased conflict in the region. By keeping refugees far from our borders, we a creating a false sense of security, while creating dangers we feel imperative to avoid.
As a nation we are strongest when our policy reflects a respect for human dignity and value, not fear of an overgeneralized threat. Aside from the humanitarian imperative this crisis drives at, it is within our strategic interest to provide assistance. As has been observed in wake of the Paris attacks, let us take a moment to reflect not in silence, but upon our Lady of Liberty who France gave generously to us:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
That is what we stand for.
As has often been forgotten in this debate, we are a nation of immigrants, who fled religious persecution, famine, and intolerance. We have been incredibly fortunate to be born into a society free from civil strife. Our daily reality does not involve chemical gas attacks, violent extremism, or starvation, and it is unlikely that we will ever be forced to leave our homes and board overcrowded vessels run by people who do not care if we live or die.
This xenophobia is unwarranted, and to suggest that Syrians are not endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is to undercut their character. There hope is our hope, and their reality is our fear. As a nation constituted in individual prosperity, we are acting against our exceptionalism in denying Syrian’s refuge.