Turning on refugees is a mistake

By Prem Calvin Prashad

Words can hardly do justice to the unimaginable horror visited on Paris by terrorist elements last Friday evening. While it was certainly not the first time Islamic fundamentalists have struck a European capital, the ferocity of the attacks and massacre of young people at the Bataclan concert hall sent shockwaves far beyond France’s borders.

Though it would appear that the majority of the attackers were disaffected French and Belgian citizens, still unconfirmed reports indicate the possibility that at least one of the alleged attackers arrived in Paris by way of the Balkan and Greek refugee route from the Syrian war zone. In a year marked by debates over the worst refugee crisis since World War II, this appears to be the biggest test of Europe’s resolve, whether they would be willing to accept and resettle refugees, despite concerns that members of ISIS would exploit this generosity to breach the border and join terrorist cells.

Europe will surely have difficult decisions to make in the coming weeks. Though the Syrian weather will slow the stream of refugees, the crisis shows no signs of abating. Any retaliatory action France or its allies can take will inevitably lead to more Syrians fleeing their homes.

The United States has resettled 1.8 million refugees since 1980 and has historically opened the door to successive waves of people fleeing Nazi Germany, communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the fall of South Vietnam, Western nations settled over a half-million refugees from Indochina. The United States alone resettled 320,000 Vietnamese refugees in just one year.

The embrace of refugees fleeing persecution is an American value and the very reason for the founding, settlement and growth of New York City. Up until today, it had arguably never been a partisan issue, but as of this week, a number of states announced that they would refuse to cooperate with the federal government’s efforts to resettle refugees, citing concerns over security. While they lack the legal basis to bar resettlement, they may take efforts to complicate the lives of the families sent there.

Yet, refugees face some of the highest scrutiny when coming to the United States. All refugees must register with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. The agency then refers refugees to the United States, which then subjects the refugees to vetting by Homeland Security, the FBI and other agencies. With 50,000 to 70,000 refugees settled each year since 2000, coming to the United States as a refugee is comparatively difficult, or as David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee notes, “the most difficult, short of swimming the Atlantic.”

The Obama administration has pledged to accept just 10,000 refugees from Syria. This pales in comparison to the million that Germany plans to absorb this year and the estimated three million that Syria’s neighbors—Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey—have also absorbed.

The conflict in Syria is grave, with every faction accused of atrocities against civilians, including chemical weapons and deliberate targeting of civilian areas. The resettlement of refugees is a proud American tradition and a wildly successful one at that. We have never received assurances that the immigrants and refugees we allowed in were not anarchists, radicals, communists, but time and again, the perceived threats posed by immigrants and refugees have failed to materialize.

The rejection and hatred of refugees is precisely the motivation of the men who attacked Paris. Europe’s generosity has stood in stark contrast to the brutal ways ISIS has oppressed and brutalized Muslims and Christian minorities. ISIS has made no secret of its long-term goal to provoke the West into conflict and they know that striking Western targets and compelling the West to turn against Muslims will solidify its goal in creating a state. We should endeavor to protect the victims of ISIS. Anything less than that is contrary to American ideals.