Why Our Leaders Are Wrong About Refugee Policy
by Joseph Sadek
In September 2015, 18 United States mayors wrote a joint letter to the president expressing their eagerness to host more Syrians in their cities. But a few months later, in November 2015, following the attacks in Paris, 31 governors told the Obama administration that they would not accept Syrian refugees in their states. Indeed, the perceived threat brought by refugees drove U.S. political leaders to change their tone on refugee policy, and they have increasingly resorted to fearmongering. This rhetoric produced a backlash on two fronts: it has resulted in a destructive conversation about refugee and migration policies and reinforced a securitized approach to these issues that undermines American democratic principles.
Since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the United States has defined and refined policies relating to migrants. As our vernacular expanded, refugee entered our lexicon with the 1951 Refugee Convention. Refugees became a subset of migrants, those fleeing from persecution and seeking asylum in a new state. After the 1980s, U.S. policies began differentiating between refugees and asylum seekers. The trajectory of domestic refugee laws and policies became even more refined and protection became narrower. For example, the Immigration and Nationality Act’s definition of “material support to designated foreign terrorist organizations” was expanded—limiting the possibility of those immigrating to the United States to escape terrorism.
After the tragic attacks on September 11, 2001, the protections granted in the 1951 Convention became irrelevant in the face of the newly emergent norm: securitization. Policymakers began to make compelling arguments that defense against terrorism was a national security priority. The United States, policymakers argued, must protect its borders from malicious outsiders to prevent similar tragedies. Subsequently, the George W. Bush administration established the Department of Homeland Security in an effort to prevent another 9/11-type attack. Many argued that securitized policies were needed in light of the realities of globalization, terrorism, and demographic changes in the developing world that would expose the homeland to dramatic violence. This rhetoric has carried through to today, and the 2016 presidential election is no exception. Candidate Donald Trump spews inflammatory commentary about our Mexican neighbors and calls for prejudicial policies against Muslims—all in the name of security.
The United States is not unique in its embrace of this security paradigm toward refugee policies. It is a global phenomenon. Across the Atlantic, European states are disassembling treaties that govern their borders. The European Union is instituting new visa policies and negotiating new asylum deals with its neighbors (such as Turkey). The rise of Donald Trump–style nationalism and exceptionalism is not solely a feature of American political discourse. The nationalist parties on the rise across the United Kingdom, France, Austria, and Hungry are Trump’s trans-Atlantic equivalents.
This is not to suggest that security should be abandoned or even neglected. The post-9/11 era suggests that there are realthreats of violence to Europe and the United States. The 2005 London Tube bombings, the Madrid train attacks, and the November 2015 Paris attacks are proof of terror’s costly toll. Our governments must protect us from foreign violence, and for the most part they have. Despite recent attacks in Europe, terrorism is an unlikely threat to Americans and Europeans. In fact, the most vulnerable populations to terrorism, war, and political violence are in neither North America nor the European continent. According to the World Economic Forum’s most recent report, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria are most affected by terrorism and extreme violence.
But many Americans remain concerned about terrorism and violence spreading to the United States, and some politicians have played on that fear, propagating the belief that migrants and refugees pose a threat to U.S. security. The popular syllogism holds: refugees are the ones fleeing the same terror we fear striking our societies. Refugees are, in fact, very unlikely to plot and/or execute terrorist activities—of the nearly 800,000 resettled refugees in the United States, three have been arrested on terrorist charges. A close examination of the facts will also reveal that the attacks perpetrated by terrorists across Europe most recently (i.e., Paris and Brussels) have not been linked to refugees. Rather, those individuals are a product of failed socio-economic and integration policies within Europe. Instead of clarifying these distinctions, our political leadership has escaped its responsibilities. Their conflation of victims of terrorism with terrorists, because of shared geographies and religious and/or cultural identity, mocks our collective intelligence.
Securitized refugee policies undermine our democratic principles and threaten the safety refugees so rightly deserve. After the horrors of the Second World War the family of nations came together to draft international law to protect refugees—the 1951 Convention. We must bolster that spirit of collaboration and empathy. It is high time we hold our political leaders accountable for fearmongering. The securitized approach to refugee policy has left millions who seek refuge in the United States and Europe in danger. These policies have also limited our civil liberties and threatened the freedoms we purportedly uphold in our societies. We must voice our concerns and demand change from our political leadership who undermine our values. It is time that we develop a human approach to refugee policies rather than a securitized one.
About the Author
Joseph Sadek is a 2016 MALD graduate of The Fletcher School and Business Director of The Fletcher Forum. Joseph focuses on public international law, forced displacement, and political violence. His thesis, examining the origins of Turkey’s refugee policies, was based on his work in southern Turkey as a researcher during the summer of 2015. Prior to studying at Fletcher, Joseph worked for Ohio State’s John Glenn School of Public Affairs in their Washington, D.C., Office. He also holds a B.A. in International Studies from The Ohio State University.