The Syrian refugee crisis has metastasized to a crisis for more than just the refugees. With at least one of the terrorists responsible for the slaughter of innocents in Paris having gained European entry from among the cohort of evacuees fleeing the Levant, the fear that the refugee crisis could prove a Trojan Horse has been confirmed. Old arguments about closing national borders have been renewed in both Europe and the United States. Some want the refugee flow halted altogether: as of late Monday, 27 U.S. governors have refused to resettle into their states any of the 10,000 Syrian refugees Obama expects to bring in this year. Others have pointed to the clear religious profile of the terrorists and have thereby suggested bringing in non-Muslim refugees only.
Against all this, Obama has been firm. He stated at the G20 summit:
When I hear folks say that, well, maybe we should just admit the Christians but not the Muslims; when I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which a person who’s fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution—that’s shameful. That’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.
Said this way, Obama is of course largely correct—compassion, particularly as informed by Christian love, is not limited to kith and kin. The problem is that it ought not be said this way. We must not think we are being forced to choose between compassion for our assailed foreign neighbors and security for our compatriot neighbors next door.
There is always a tension between a good government’s acceptance of its primary duty to protect its own people and its recognition of some measure of responsibility for the welfare of folks from other lands—even if at a modest risk to its own security and material prosperity. Indeed, were we certain that these Syrian refugees had no place else on earth to go then it would be incumbent upon us to accept some risk to help them. But this doesn’t seem to be the case.
The refugees coming to America are already in camps in countries outside Syria. To say these are not ideal locations for the flourishing of its inhabitants is surely a gross understatement. But neither are they quite the worn-torn chaos the inhabitants have successfully fled. Moreover, America can help provide resources to make them more secure.
The suspicion that these locations are passably sufficient is bolstered by the fact that large numbers of the refugees attempting to gain entry to Europe are young—that is fighting age—males traveling alone. While this fact alone should give us additional pause, we also recognize this to be a typical stratagem for immigrants. One doesn’t first send women to go abroad, find a home and work, and then act as an anchor to bring the rest of the family over. One sends durable young men. But this suggests a comparative luxury more expected of economic migrants than refugees fleeing chaos and death.
Additionally, refugee camps ought not to be seen always as a precursor to relocation abroad. They ought to be seen as a temporary measure to keep folks safe before they can return home. Most Americans have no problem with people wanting to migrate for a better life. But a better life can sometimes be found once conditions in one’s homeland move closer to justice, order, and peace.
Those fighting-age males seeking a better life can be redirected to help the process. A large US conventional force might not be the best strategy for the destruction of ISIS. Leaner numbers of Special Operations forces, backed by massive airpower, joining up with and supporting local partners—as the US did in Afghanistan with the Northern Alliance—is one alternative. In the Levant, such a partnership will have to be forged. In addition to the Kurds, the Sunni population, which makes up much of the refugee pool, is a particularly viable prospect. A part of the reason the Sunni are fleeing Syria is they are being made to choose between living under the tyranny of ISIS or the tyranny of Iran. Training them up, supporting them, and leading them into the fight provides them a third option.
The idea, then, that unless we bring the refugees to America they will have no place else to go is false. There are other, more prudent means, especially given the potential risks of beasts following refugees into America.
On the other hand, the one population group for whom the camps do seem to be a danger are Christians. While fleeing their specific targeting by ISIS, Christians are actively avoiding the UN camps out of fear of political and sectarian retribution. Even in Germany, separate camps needed to be created along religious lines due to violence directed against Christians. When a particular group is singled out even within the refugee population, it hardly seems “un-American” to give preference to that population when filling your refugee quota—especially when the risks posed by Christian refugees are, frankly, less than that of Muslim ones.
So, Obama’s comments notwithstanding, we are not faced with a choice between compassion and security. We can care for both our foreign-neighbor and the one next door. So, compassion, yes; but it must not run roughshod over prudence.
Marc LiVecche, (PhD, University of Chicago), is managing editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy and a scholar on just war and Christian ethics at the Institute on Religion & Democracy