“In the context of the current refugee crisis in Europe, we shouldn’t forget that refugees by and large are fleeing the despicable behavior of those who perpetrated Friday’s attacks in Paris.” – John Sandweg, Former Acting Director, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
While I appreciate the intention of quote, the statement is demonstrably false. The vast majority of Syrian refugees fled violence from Bashar al-Assad, not ISIS. The quote makes for a good tag line, but it has the drawbacks of being completely incorrect and misleading to the public.
After refugees fled violence from the regime (and other actors), and arrived in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, Syrian refugees faced terrible conditions. Refugee camps are wildly underfunded and are often in remote places like the Jordanian desert. (Most refugees, however, live in urban areas, not camps). Refugees are, in almost all cases, not legally permitted to work. Refugee assistance such as cash payments, vouchers, health care, education, housing, food programs, and clothing for winter have all been dramatically cut from already insufficient levels. They are still declining. Small nations like Lebanon and Jordan cannot reasonably accommodate them through private charity or public assistance. Turkey, while large, also cannot permanently accommodate 2 million plus and growing refugees. Public assistance to locals has dramatically declined due to the financial strain. There is growing local animosity towards refugees and the embarrassingly inadequate international response. Prices for necessities like food, clothing and housing have increased for everyone, sometimes dramatically. The chances of returning to a normal life at home are essentially zero, as the war has no chance of ending anytime soon, the economy has been devastated and the cities and villages refugees are from lie in ruins.
Syrian refugees who are going to Europe are those who are wealthy enough to leave Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon to pay for the long and expensive journey. The poor are stuck in camps or stuck in poverty in urban areas. Those going to Europe are not fleeing ISIS. They once fled Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs and indiscriminate violence. They’re now fleeing a lack of political and economic rights in their host countries and they’re fleeing life relying on long-term to permanent, radically underfunded international assistance. Any counter-terrorism strategy that leaves millions of people who have fled a war-torn country, permanently unemployed and permanently without hope in nations unable to assist or assimilate them is shockingly short-sighted and stupid. How long until a permanently unemployed and permanently humiliated people turn to violence and extremism in their host countries? What happens if extremism grows and destabilizes Jordan? Or Lebanon? Or Turkey? Hardliners have absolutely no answer for this nightmare.
The European refugee crisis is a lot more satisfying to moralize about and a lot more politically profitable to bullshit about when people are “running from ISIS”. But the truth is a lot uglier, a lot more complicated and is deeply embarrassing to westerners who in the face of every single modern refugee crisis have said, “never again!” They’re fleeing the terrible conditions which they face in refugee host countries of which there is little chance to escape. But here’s the kicker, if we’re honest enough to say they’re fleeing the terrible conditions of their host countries, then their status as they’re fleeing to Europe is no longer “refugee”, but “economic migrant” and are subsequently not guaranteed the same legal rights and protections as they would be if they were “refugees.” So all of us, including those who want to host them, lie. Doing so protects the fiction that we are virtuous, that our actions are responsible and that our system is just. We are not virtuous. We are not responsible. We are not just. We are culpable. Apparently, “economic migrant”, a person who flees being permanently stateless and oppressed and who flees permanent grinding poverty with no hope of ever escaping (they are legally barred from working after all) are apparently less worthy than the refugee who flees violence, even when, the two people, just so happen to be the exact same person.
The refugee crisis and the subsequent problems of mass migration into Europe could have been addressed far more effectively by aggressively funding programs in refugee host nations like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan through the UN, international NGO’s and government aid organizations thus decreasing the need to migrate elsewhere. We could have aggressively addressed the lack of political and economic rights in neighboring countries from the beginning, and while simultaneously working for a political or even military solution to violence in Syria and Iraq, encouraged political and economic assimilation into host countries through large loan guarantees, generous aid packages and other forms of international support. We could have started the vetting process for refugee resettlement into the west sooner and in much larger numbers so that we wouldn’t have been overwhelmed later leading to a breakdown in vetting and organization. But we chose the opposite. Our first instinct could have been compassion and generosity, yet it was war. Our current priorities could be political and economic rights, yet it is a retreat to isolation and increasing state restriction on the rights of refugees.
The libertarian in me is appalled by state restrictions on migration and an insistence on war. The Christian in me mourns the complete lack of compassion and the duplicitous response by fellow believers to ignore the plight of the needy and to oppose the rights of the alien which are demanded so forcefully, repeatedly and unequivocally in Scripture while they still pretend to hold “Christian values”. The Texan in me is embarrassed of how damn afraid everybody is of violence that has virtually zero chance of affecting you or anyone you know. But the human in me, the guy who walks outside of his apartment in Amman, Jordan and interacts daily with people who have shown my wife and me nothing but friendliness and incredible hospitality, many of whom have dedicated their lives, often at great personal sacrifice, to assist the very same refugees who the west is so afraid of despite having only a fraction of the resources at hand – the human in me: he’s just fucking angry.
Shame on you who oppose the rights refugees.
Shame on you who profess to follow Christ to the cross but only to the point short of personal or communal danger.
Shame on you who celebrate the birth of Jesus in a manger, but condemn thousands of 2nd generation refugees to be born in overcrowded camps and substandard urban housing.
Shame on you who read the story of the flight into Egypt with pious lips but close off your country, your homes and your churches to refugees.
Shame on you who decry the refugees’ plight but do nothing to advocate for their political or economic rights and refuse to account for your own culpability.
Shame on you who exploit the suffering of the alien for personal gain.
“Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.”
“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”