This blog was co-authored by Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, the Executive Director of People Demand Change, an international development organization that works to expand and strengthen civil society in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) through the provision of aid and support.
Last week’s events in Paris prompted, predictably, an immediate backlash regarding the resettlement of Syrian refugees, both in the United States and Europe. The should-we-or-shouldn’t-we question that has been a steady topic of debate among politicians, policymakers, and advocates for the past several years has taken a firm turn toward we shouldn’t after a Syrian passport was found near one of the attackers’ bodies. Calls to restrict and even stop resettlement of Syrians to the U.S. have come from public figures as diverse as a presidential candidate, leadership of the House of Representatives, and state governors. But the body of evidence regarding the risks of terrorism from a potential refugee resettlement program is not borne out.
The idea that refugees might be already radicalized and ready to support extremism wherever they end up is a fundamental misunderstanding of refugee flight that seems to follow people from the Middle East in particular, and has prompted the United States to deny protection to thousands of vulnerable people. This is an embarrassment to the tradition and history of refugee protection worldwide, but it has happened time and again. Syrians are fleeing the Assad regime’s attacks on civilians, and they are fleeing ISIS’ occupation of a large portion of Syria. The refugees who manage to escape Syria are the survivors of those assaults, not the perpetrators. Assuming that every person coming out of ISIS-controlled territory supports ISIS is nonsensical; would they have risked everything to leave just to destroy the chance to live peaceably in a new host country?
Already 1,854 Syrians who fled the conflict since 2012 have made the U.S. their home after an arduous journey that involved years of interviews, screenings and vetting by the State Department, Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice. They are working and their children are going to schools, contributing to and enjoying a society that has accepted refugees from hardship since its inception. To deny others the same opportunities, based on the discovery of a Syrian passport at the scene of the Paris attacks, is confirmation bias and group punishment at its worst. Serbian police found a passport with the exact same information as that found outside Stade de France on a man in Serbia, and believe both to be fake, attesting to the well-known fact that forged Syrian documents can be purchased in countries like Turkey for a paltry few hundred dollars.
Tragically, the actions of a few with bad intentions have now created further hardship for literally millions of innocent people. Unaccompanied refugee children, for example, survivors of torture and trauma, or female-headed households with no means of protection will now be under suspicion of having ISIS connections and will have their resettlement cases either delayed or denied. The much larger number of people who will never be resettled will have to live under constant scrutiny and threat of punishment in host countries. Should anyone imagine them as having sympathies for extremists? Active, energetic people committed to changing Syria for the better will now have no option to flee when things get too dangerous, because borders are being closed to Syria’s survivors. ISIS would like nothing more than for the world to reject Syrian refugees and further increase an already palpable feeling of isolation and abandonment that many Syrians feel after years of the international community being unable or uninterested in solving the Syrian conflict. Rejecting Syrian refugees en-masse is not only morally unconscionable, it is also exactly what ISIS wants the international community to do so that they have a captive audience to brainwash and oppress.
The U.S. refugee resettlement program “reflects the United States’ highest values and aspirations to compassion, generosity and leadership.” The related security vetting system is one of the most thorough in the world, and has evolved after many years of trial with very little error. Anyone who doesn’t have faith in that system can and should work to continue to adjust it, but system reform cannot come at the expense of vulnerable people who need protection, and whom the U.S. has said it is committed to. Stopping resettlement because the program might be imperfect will prevent us from effecting meaningful and lasting change in the lives of tens of thousands of people.