The Politics of Resettlement: Migrants vs. Refugees

2 September 2015, 1938 EDT

We are witnessing the horror of war. We see it every day, with fresh pictures of refugees risking their lives on the sea, rather than risking death by shrapnel, bombs, assassination or enslavement. For the past four years, over 11 million Syrians have left their homes; 4 million of them have left Syria altogether. Each day thousands attempt to get to a safer place, a better life for themselves and their children. Each day, the politics of resettlement and the fear of terrorism play their part.

The last major resettlement campaign in the US came after the Vietnam War. Over a 20-year period 2 million people from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam were resettled into the US.   The overall number of resettled refugees from this period is roughly about 3 million. Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria in 2011, Turkey alone has taken 2 million Syrian refugees within its borders. In short, Turkey has absorbed the same amount of war refugees in a four-year period that the US absorbed in five times the amount of time.

Turning to the Syrian case, which has produced the most refugees in any war in the past 70 years, we find a very dismal record of other than near neighbor resettlement. The Syrian conflict began in early 2011, and while the violence quickly escalated, I am taking the numbers of admitted Syrian refugees to the US starting in 2012. In 2012, the US admitted 35 Syrian refugees. In 2013, it admitted 48; in 2014, it admitted 1307. For 2015, the US is estimating admitting somewhere between 1000-2000 refugees. Even Canada, who tends to be more open with regard to resettlement and aid, has only admitted about 1300 refugees, pledging to admit 10,000 more by 2017.  In short, since the beginning of this war, one of the most powerful countries in the world, with ample space and the economic capacity to admit more people, has admitted an estimated total of 2400 people, and its neighbor, a defender of human rights, has admitted about half that. Thinking the other way around, the US has agreed to take in .0006 % of the current population of Syrian refugees, and this number does not does not take into consideration the 7 million internally displaced people of Syria, or the simple fact that one country (Turkey) has absorbed 45%.

To be sure, the US has provided over $4 billion in US government assistance for humanitarian response. However, this is clearly not enough or is not going to the right people. Canadian aid too is mostly committed to development projects ($230 million). The remaining aid, from a $700 million pot, is designated to security and stability operations in other countries, aid to activists, and the balance is for humanitarian concerns.   Yet this too is clearly untenable.

While the world watches the European Union’s “migrant” crisis, there is little attention paid to what the rest of the world community can do to aid, or to what the rest of the world community is in fact failing to do with aid for refugees. Calling this a “migrant” crisis fails to take into consideration that most of the people fleeing across the Mediterranean or over land into neighboring countries is that these are not economic migrants looking for work. They are human beings fleeing from war.  Half are children.

Now, one might say that the US only has 50,000 available spots for resettling refugees, and so I am being unfair to its failure to take in more. After all, there are other countries that have refugees and to fill all of those spots with Syrians would not lessen the plight of those other poor souls.   This is true. However, while the rather disappointing United States Refugee Act of 1980 caps refugee resettlement at 50,000, it does make an exception to admit more under extreme circumstances. Under these situations, admission “shall be allocated among refugees of special humanitarian concern to the United States in accordance with a determination made by the President.” In short, the President is empowered to admit more. And there is no limit or quantity or degree.   The justification is one of “grave humanitarian concerns” or “is otherwise in the national interest.”

For most of the Cold War period, the US took in about an average of 200,000 refugees per year. More recently, this figure has dropped to about 60,000 per year. Given the grave humanitarian crisis faced by Syrians, as well as other war torn peoples, it is imperative that the US reexamine its refugee policy and that President Obama utilize his executive powers to raise the number of refugees permitted into the US. Several Senate Democrats have asked the President to admit 65,000 Syrians, but this bill seems to be going nowhere, notwithstanding a petition on the White House’s webpage.

It seems then imperative to bring to light what the rest of the world can do, and what examples states like the US and Canada can set for others to follow. It is not merely about giving money or food; it is about providing safe haven and a chance at life. The West cannot hold these human beings at arms length because of a threat of inviting in “violent extremism” or “militant Islam” or whatever the justification may be. For it is beyond reason to think that admitting refugees from war torn societies to peaceful societies will mean that they want to breed more war. They have fled war. They will not create it here.