Letter To The Editor: Why We Should Welcome Syrian Refugees With Open Arms

Los Alamos

After the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday, I have been alarmed and disgusted by the Islamophobic, anti-Syrian, and often violent backlash across North America and Europe. And now it has come to New Mexico with our governor’s statement that she opposes Obama’s plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees, joining a rapidly expanding bandwagon of (mostly) Republican governors. This standpoint is morally bankrupt, utterly uninformed by the facts, and completely counterproductive.

First, some perspective. The US has resettled 1,800 Syrian refugees since 2011, when the Syrian civil war begin, and the government currently plans to settle 10,000 more, in a country of about 322 million people (that’s a 0.003% increase in population). Our neighbors in Canada are taking in 25,000 Syrians, in a country of 35 million (0.7% of the population).

The EU has received 626,000 asylum applications so far this year (though that also includes refugees from many other countries), in a population of 509 million (that’s 0.1% of the population). Germany has committed to taking in 800,000 refugees, in a country of 81 million (0.9% of the population). Lebanon, which borders Syria, has had its population increase by one third since 2011 due to the influx of refugees. Jordan and Turkey have shouldered similar burdens. So, we can easily take in a paltry 10,000 more people.

The ethics: as has been widely pointed out, the refugees fleeing Syria are fleeing the very same organization that carried out the Paris attacks, the Islamic State (which I’ll refer to by its Arabic acronym Daesh), as well as the terror that has been visited upon them for four years by the Assad regime (which, by the way, has probably caused more suffering in Syria than Daesh).

The Syrian civil war has seen well over 250,000 people killed (the situation is so chaotic the UN had to stop counting last year), and immense suffering as the government and rebels target civilians, bomb hospitals and schools and markets, launch chemical weapons attacks, and engage in torture and the use of child soldiers. The recent Russian entry into the war is driving tens of thousands more from their homes. While the bombing campaign led by the US has been more cautious, it has still killed hundreds of civilians. Denying refuge to people fleeing such horror is an outrage.

The facts: it appears that one of the attackers in Paris posed as a refugee using a fake Syrian passport. That’s one out of 600,000+ people who have fled to Europe this year, about half of whom were Syrian. However, the path into Europe for a refugee is drastically different than into the US. To get to Europe, a Syrian has to cross a land border to Turkey, pay a smuggler to put them on a rickety boat across the Aegean to Greece, and then they travel by land to the EU, where they apply for asylum.

Given the vast number of people trying to get to Europe, it is conceivable that a few terrorists could slip though. This is of course not reason to keep the refugees from coming, and as many people seem to be ignoring, most of the attackers were born in France.

To get to the US, which of course is on the other side of a large ocean, a Syrian must register with the UN High Commission for Refugees, which screens them to see if they meet the criteria for being a refugee; they are then referred to the US, which carries out a wide range of checks through different agencies and conducts an interview before they even make it to the US; and further checks are conducted when the refugee arrives in the US, and after resettlement. This process takes 18 to 24 months. If Daesh wants to send terrorists to the US, they’d probably weigh this option equally with having them swim across the Atlantic. Daesh certainly has easier ways of attacking the US.

The effects: one of the reasons that Daesh has been so effective, especially in recruiting foreign fighters and new converts, is that they promote a narrative that Muslims are being oppressed and demonized by the West, and only under the rule of their caliphate can this injustice be remedied. When we slam our doors shut to desperate people fleeing conditions that most of us can barely imagine, or shout racist slurs during football games, or support governments like Saudi Arabia that have repressed their populations for decades, or launch a war on false pretexts that kills hundreds of thousands of Muslim civilians, it is no wonder that some people would think they have a point.

Every Islamophobic comment, every Syrian refugee turned away, is a small victory for Daesh. They want to drive a wedge between Muslim populations in the West and the rest of us, and we must not let them. Daesh is not something that can be defeated purely by dropping bombs from our expensive fighter jets. Daesh is an ideology that feeds on oppression, mistrust, hatred, violence, poverty, and rage against a system that cares little for the Middle East but for its oil.

We can feed the conditions Daesh preys upon by turning on our neighbors because they are different from us, crying for revenge and blood, and leaving children to drown in the Mediterranean. Or we can take a stand against their terror and black-and-white worldview by opening our doors to our fellow humans in their hour of need; learning to respect and appreciate people of different faiths and nations; express love and solidarity, not hate, in the face of tragedy; and demand that our leaders respond to terrorism with intelligence, compassion, and measured actions that do not simply perpetuate violence.

Daesh will be defeated through building peace in Iraq and Syria, promoting development and good governance, and erasing Islamophobia and racism from Western society. And that’s a lot harder than demanding that we drop a few more bombs.

Editor’s note: Dustin Johnson is a native of Los Alamos pursuing a career in international development. He completed his masters degree in October in Halifax, Nova Scotia.