Melissa Strauss: We can't turn our backs on refugees

Tuesday, September 20, 2016 - 7:13pm

In light of the recent ceasefire agreement brokered between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Syria, I began thinking again about an issue that is close to my heart: the Syrian refugee crisis. During my internship with the Truman National Security Project this summer, I conducted a research project focusing on U.S. policy toward refugee resettlement. Throughout my research, I found myself alarmed by the global response to the largest humanitarian crisis the world has faced since World War II and extremely worried for the United States’s future response following this important presidential election.

The Syrian refugee crisis is something we hear about almost daily — and often through the lens of highly political rhetoric. We’ve all heard of Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering our country, the fact that 31 governors have sworn to stop admitting refugees into their states and numerous politicians claim the refugee crisis is a window for ISIS and other extremist groups to enter our country in "Trojan horse" fashion. In a nation built on the premise of freedom and security for all, this growing trend of fear and hate is alarming. While the U.S. election in November will clearly affect our own lives at home, it will also be incredibly important for the 4.8 million Syrians who have fled their homes in search of safety.

The United States has a long history of admitting refugees from all over the world. Providing a safe haven for vulnerable populations is in our DNA. Since World War II, the United States has been a global leader on refugee resettlement, providing homes for 3 million refugees since 1975. This year, President Barack Obama and Secretary Kerry have pledged to admit at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016, and 100,000 total world refugees by 2017. While these are important and meaningful steps in the right direction, the election this fall has enormous implications for our future policies regarding refugees. If we get it wrong, then we risk turning our backs on refugees, and thus turning our backs on deeply rooted American values.

Experts argue that admitting Syrian refugees into our country will not only maintain and restore American credibility abroad, but is also essential in advancing our own national security interests. Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, stated that “increased resettlement and aid helps protect the stability of a region that is home to U.S. allies.” Additionally, a bipartisan group of former U.S. national security advisers, CIA directors and department secretaries sent a letter to Congress in December stating that “resettlement initiatives help advance U.S. national security interests by supporting the stability of our allies and partners that are struggling to host large numbers of refugees.” If we don’t help ensure the stability of our allies, we risk these states breaking down and giving rise to more extremist and hostile groups.

Demagogues would have you believe that terrorists will easily slip across our borders posing as refugees, but these statements are highly debatable. In our nation’s long history of refugee resettlement, a refugee has never successfully committed a single terrorist attack against us. Since 9/11, only three refugees have been convicted for terror-related activities — and none of them had any viable plans for an attack within the U.S. Unlike European countries, where refugees often show up on their borders without the luxury of screening first, the U.S. refugee screening process constitutes possibly the most difficult manner of entering the country. Refugees must endure a lengthy 18- to 24-month-long process, involving the UNHCR and multiple U.S. government departments. Of the 4.8 million registered Syrian refugees, only about 18,000 have been referred by the UNHCR to be resettled in the U.S.

Once refugees arrive in the United States, they are connected with nine voluntary resettlement agencies that help them settle into their new communities and become economically self-sufficient. A great new student organization, the Michigan Refugee Assistance Program, has partnered with Jewish Family Services to help resettle refugees in the Ann Arbor area. The group is dedicated to raising awareness about the current refugee crisis, particularly by adding a student voice to this crisis while also humanizing refugees.

LSA senior Nicole Khamis says she decided to start MRAP this semester because it is a time when local refugee resettlement agencies need assistance the most and students often feel helpless in the face of this incredible crisis. “I have little patience for any arguments against settling refugees in the United States for numerous reasons, but mainly because they are based in xenophobic fears and also reproduce the rhetoric of Arabs/Muslims as terrorists and violent in nature,” Khamis says. Additionally, if Donald Trump is elected in November, Khamis believes refugees will no longer be able to seek protection in the United States.

Refugee policy is not a partisan issue. It is a moral one. As the situation in the Middle East worsens, the United States has an obligation to provide assistance to this vulnerable population and to our allies on the frontlines. If xenophobic rhetoric continues to flourish in American political discourse, we risk alienating our Muslim and Arab-American populations — possibly leading some vulnerable people to seek support and community in overseas terror organizations. Electing the right person in November will determine whether or not we hold true to American values or succumb to fear and bigotry.

A 1939 poll showed that three out of five Americans opposed the resettlement of 10,000 Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi Germany. Imagine the devastation and imagine our nation’s current cultural fabric had these voices prevailed during that time of crisis. We cannot allow these same voices to triumph today’s context.

Melissa Strauss can be reached at melistrau@umich.edu