In Defense of Refugees


A recent news story suggested that the Trump administration has considered another drastic reduction next year in the maximum number of refugees allowed into the United States (the annual ceiling), perhaps to fewer than 10,000 people. One estimate suggested the administration could set the ceiling at zero refugees.

This is a continuation of a trend. In each of its first three years, the Trump administration has cut the number of refugees allowed into the country, with refugee resettlement numbers at the lowest levels they’ve been in decades. This is all consistent with some of the rhetoric that has come out of the administration, which has demonized not just undocumented immigrants, but also refugees and asylum seekers.

Source: The Migration Policy Institute (Link)

Here is a local example. In April, 2016 when he was still a candidate, Donald Trump made his only campaign stop to my home state of Rhode Island. His comments to the audience of perhaps a thousand people have mostly been forgotten, but at the time I noted to myself that they were particularly demagogic. In hindsight, they were another sign of what a Trump administration might look like.

About thirty minutes into his comments that day, he mentioned his views on immigration, saying:  “We’re going to be fair. We’re not going to be tough. We’re going to be fair. We’re going to be smart. And we want people to come into our country, but they have to come in legally. We want that.”

However, he contradicted himself just ten minutes later, saying he did not want at least one form of legal immigration – refugees, specifically refugees from certain countries. As politicians are wont to do, he read off a laundry list of items that Rhode Islanders would likely disapprove of, suggesting that their incumbent leaders had let them down and that he would do things differently.  And then he got to the item of Syrian refugees: 

“Now here’s one I don’t like. Syrian refugees are now being resettled in Rhode Island.” [The crowd booed loudly in response]. We don’t know where they’re from. We don’t know where they’re from. They have no documentation. We all have hearts, and we can build safe zones in Syria and we’ll get the Gulf states to put up the money. We’re not putting up the money, but I’ll get that done. But you know what? We can’t let this happen. But you have a lot of them resettling in Rhode Island. Just enjoy your — lock your doors, folks.

No, it’s a big problem! We don’t know anything about ‘em! We don’t know where they come from, who they are! There’s no documentation! We have our incompetent government people letting ‘em in by the thousands! And who knows!? Who knows!? Maybe it’s ISIS! You see what happens when two people that became radicalized in California where they shot and killed all their co-workers. OK? Not with me, folks.”

His comments struck me as not just xenophobic, but entirely dishonest and manipulative. First, he was wrong that there were “a lot” of Syrian refugees resettling in the state. The first Syrian refugees in Rhode Island had only arrived a few months before Trump’s speech: a young couple with their three cute children, all under 9 years old. By the time of his visit, that number had risen to just 26 people (as of 2019, there are now 174 Syrian refugees here). None of these figures qualifies as “a lot.”

He was also wrong to claim that we don’t know anything about refugees. Rather, the screening process is quite thorough, with multiple levels of vetting. Further, it was particularly manipulative to mention Syrian refugees in the same breath as ISIS and the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernadino California. That horrible incident was perpetrated by a U.S. born man of Pakistani descent and his Pakistani-born wife, not by refugees. And, it was also just one of the 372 mass shootings in the U.S. that year, none of which were committed by refugees. Let’s just say it: out of all of those incidents, it was clear that he chose that particular one to paint Muslims with a broad brush as potential terrorists. 

Trump’s targeting of Syrian refugees fits within a recurrent pattern of xenophobia toward a number of groups. For example, it has sought to end Temporary Protected Status for groups living in the U.S. who had fled war, disease, or natural disasters, including people from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan, Honduras, and Nepal. Although it is true that their legal protection is “temporary,” the fact that the administration wanted to remove all of these groups simultaneously – as well as prevent almost all refugees from resettling here regardless of their country of origin – suggests that these policies are more about xenophobia and limiting the numbers of non-white people in the U.S. than just about Syrian refugees’ (unsubstantiated) risk for violence or terrorism.

Here is another example. In January 2016, then candidate Trump first read a poem “The Snake” at a rally in Iowa, which he would read again on several more occasions. The poem’s premise is that a talking snake fatally bites a “tender-hearted woman” after she found it half-frozen and decided to nurse it back to health. Before reading the poem Trump told his audiences to think of it in terms of the southern U.S. border or in terms of refugees, calling these groups a “Trojan horse” for terrorism or violent crime. The obvious message was: “don’t trust these people or let them take advantage of your sympathy; they may appear to need your help, but deep-down their nature is nasty and your decency will lead to people getting killed.”

I think it’s pretty cynical to turn people’s sense of compassion against them. It is true that interacting with new people carries risks; virtually anyone you meet could harm you. Existence itself is a risk. If you want to avoid all risk for interpersonal violence, you’ll have to live in a bunker and avoid people altogether. But the statistics suggest that refugees are not a group with a higher risk for perpetrating violence. The libertarian-leaning Cato Institute noted that between 2001 and 2015, “there had been only one terrorism-planning conviction for every 286,543 refugees.” By comparison, they observed, “about 1 in every 22,541 Americans committed murder in 2014.” In another analysis, Daniel Masterson and Vasil Yasenov of Stanford University‘s Immigration Policy Lab found that a temporary, 120 day-long cessation of refugees into the US in 2017 had no effect on violent crime rates, indicating that refugees are not a risky population.

To go back to Trump’s Rhode Island visit, I admit that it was disheartening to hear people from my home state respond with such fear and animosity toward twenty-six refugees they knew nothing about, who had probably gone through hellish experiences to survive and make it to safety. And it made me angry to hear a politician manipulate a crowd by feeding their sense of fear and demonizing vulnerable people.

Some of the best, most generous human beings I’ve ever met have been refugees. They have included friends, students, and research participants from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Sudan. It’s not a requirement that a refugee be an exceptionally kind person to live here; it’s just a fact I’ve observed. And being from southern New England, I would be remiss to forget the Portuguese from the Azores, who were resettled here after John F. Kennedy spearheaded the Azorean Refugee Act of 1958 after a volcanic eruption devastated one of the islands. All of these people have brought something new to the country. They’ve absorbed from, given to, and reshaped the places they live, which has been the story of the country since… forever.

The total number of displaced people in the world is higher than its ever been. To reduce the number of refugees so drastically leaves vulnerable lingering in limbo, unable to flourish. In my experience, this also detracts from the places where they could have resettled and to which they could have contributed.

2 thoughts on “In Defense of Refugees

  1. Whether or not racism as evident in today’s USA was always there and now seems more prevalent only because Trump and his inner circle appear to openly condone it is perhaps irrelevant to an analysis of current refugee and economic migration patterns. What is sure is that both categories of people on the move have increased enormously over the past 100 years and that there are now more of both in the world than ever before — and that almost every single human being in either category has elements of the other category in his make up. What has also increased is the negative reception of foreigners, particularly those who are poor and sick and most in need of help.

    All that said, in the interests of objective analysis, it is necessary to point out that the UNHCR and other agencies involved with refugees and migrants have for a long time been trying to tackle the problem and have failed — partly because of the size of the problem, partly because of reactionaries like Trump, and partly, it must be admitted, because of inappropriate largess by liberal leaders like Angela Merkel, admirable in their sentiments but not always realistic in their policy solutions. It was largely because of Merkel’s open door policy that Europe was flooded in a very short time by a huge number of refugees from ISIS areas and an unprecedented number of Africans spending large amounts of money to get to Europe where they made asylum claims which, even if refused, often allowed individuals to stay and work in a wealthy country for at least a number of years while claims and appeals are heard. This hit a high point around three-four years ago, just before the UK had its referendum on remaining in the EU. The result: 51.8% of voters in that referendum chose to take the UK out of the EU (Europe). It was a drastic decision and one that has already had severe economic effects on the UK economy and sterling — and the UK has not yet left.

    What should have been done differently and what should be done now to deter ‘frivolous’ asylum claims?

    I don’t know the answer but it is relevant that UNHCR has been working on it since the end of WW2. During this time some two core principles have been formulated. One is the definition of refugees as people with a well-founded fear of persecution if returned to their country of origin. The other is that applications for asylum must be made in the first country of arrival if this is at all possible.

    I worked in UNHCR for 19 years and know that when these principle-policies were implemented solutions were found other than resettlement outside the country of origin.

    Should these principles be applied to asylum seekers in the USA? I think they must be. This does not mean that families should be separated or people mistreated to deter arrivals — UNHCR has two arms and aims: assistance and protection. Genuine refugees should be provided with assistance to remain outside their countries until return is safe and with protection against those who would take advantage of their insecurity.

    Assistance should be provided in the country of first asylum whenever possible and individuals making multiple claims to refugee status in different countries should be denied assistance. In practice this usually means some assistance is provided until the migrant can be returned home — repatriated (by reasonable force if necessary — as was the case with Vietnamese and Lao outside their countries of origin and determined not to be refugees).

    It is understandable that ordinary citizens in the UK and European countries far from conflict areas in the middle east and Africa refuse to extend traditional hospitality to those who crash their borders. What is not understandable is why the leaders of European countries drastically limited their financial support of camps for displaced persons in Jordan and elsewhere, leaving less well-off countries to carry the burden simply because they were fist in line next to refugee exporting areas. In Europe that was the origin of the flood of refugees/migrants into western Europe. Most of those on the move did not apply for asylum in any of the many countries the moved through (Turkey, Jordan, Greece, the ex-Jugoslavias, Hungary etc). They kept moving until they got to Germany, France, Italy or the UK.

    Had the richer European countries continued to provide support in the countries of first asylum, the anti-refugee reaction might have been nipped in the bud rather than fueled.

    The same is probably true for many South Americans arriving in the US. Most come from countries other than Mexico and pass through one or two countries without claiming asylum before they arrive in the US. To expect the USA to welcome them all is unrealistic. The USA has a responsibility, and its wealth means this is a financial responsibility, as a world leader to assist and protect — but not necessarily within its own borders. If it cooperated with south American countries instead of imposing economic sanctions on some and assisted those countries to resolve the refugee/economic migrant exodus, there might well be no ‘caravans’ heading towards the land of opportunity.

    The US (and before Trump) has not led wisely. It (and the UK and France) has provoked poverty and even wars (think: Libya, Iraq) which have fueled rather than resolved existing problems.

    Rich countries need to rethink their policies towards poor countries. Weaker countries are no longer colonised but policies like ‘America First’ have results — results which are negative for both the countries of origin and the USA and Germany, France, the UK and Italy.

    Time to remain humane but to rethink.

    • Hi Robert, sorry for the slow reply. We were out of town for a few days. Thank you for your insights. I agree that there are limits to how many refugees or asylum seekers countries can accept. I don’t think the US is at those limits yet. And I agree that it would probably be better for everyone if high-income countries did more to help alleviate the conflicts themselves or send more aid to those countries nearest conflicts who receive refugees first.

      One of the Democratic Presidential candidates, Julian Castro, suggested a “Marshall Plan” to help stabilize Central American countries, which in theory would both improve local conditions and cut down on the number of asylum seekers fleeing the region. It makes more sense to me than spending money on a wall.

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