Response & Responsibility: A Symposium on the Syrian Refugee Crisis
Since the November 13th terrorist attacks in Paris, there has been renewed interests in the plight of refugees fleeing the civil-war in Syria.
On the one hand are security concerns about the intake of Syrian refugees into the United States. While it now appears confirmed that all of the Paris attackers were European citizens, it – also apparently – remains true that investigations are ongoing into whether one or more of them, including potentially the mastermind, nevertheless utilized the refugee crisis as a screen to steal into Europe undetected. In any case, many dismiss these security concerns as irrelevant to the American concerns given the very different refugee vetting processes of the United States and Europe. Still, for others, the concerns remain.
On the other hand are the calls for compassion. American ideals and the norms of faith, they contend, insist we welcome the refugee to our homeland and homes. Moreover, calls for preferences for Christian refugees, both for reasons of security and because Christians are being target for violence even within the refugee communities, are decried – even by our President – as “unAmerican.” Those who call for compassion have their detractors, of course, many of whom insist that our primary compassion needs to be for our citizens and their security, however small the risks, over the needs of our foreign neighbors.
While the writers of Providence are united in their recognition that it is wrong to view this as a choice between compassion or security, there nevertheless remains disagreement in the details. While all of us know that we can neither demonstrate compassion nor guarantee security to the nth degree, we all of us insist that both must be present in approximation and that each qualifies the other. What follows below is how different thinkers, each serious about their religious commitments and practical responsibilities, reflect on these complex issues.
Compassion & Security in Tension David Shedd
Christian Response to Migrants A.J. Noltes
Compassion, Yes; But Prudence, Too Marc LiVecche – published at First Things
After Paris: A Christian View of Protecting the Innocent Mark Tooley – published at National Review
Other Excellent Resources:
5 Principles for a Post-ISIS Plan in the Middle East by Chris Seiple
David R. Shedd
My views on the refugee crisis are shaped around a couple of Biblical principles which are actually in tension with each other: we are to show compassion toward the destitute and we are to pursue justice, which includes the sovereign’s responsibility to maintain the peace and order of those they rule.
The biblical norm of compassion and mercy toward those less fortunate than ourselves is summarized in the mandate to love our neighbor as we love our self. One way we have shown that mercy for the Syrian refugees is by our already having given $4.5 billion toward their care in refugee camps.
The other Biblical principle of justice, sprinkled throughout a number of Biblical passages, is summarized in the calling that as believers in Christ we are to apply justice at the same time as we demonstrate mercy (Micah 6:8). The justice aspect attends to our valid security concerns – which are very legitimate concerns. Unlike other accommodations made by the U.S. for incoming refugees, there is no good identifying data on many of the would-be resettled refugees coming from Syria. Even in Iraq, we were able to run checks based on data we obtained in the various Saddam-era files. Now, in the best case, the average Syrian wanting to come to the U.S. left Syria for Turkey, Jordan, or Lebanon with little to no documentation. In the worst case, they intentionally entered neighboring states with falsified documentation.
Jesus called us to be shrewd in responding to known or potential deception. What this means for us now is that it is no breach of Christian responsibility to ensure we maintain a commitment to justice even as we demonstrate our compassion. This is in contradistinction to those who abandon their duty toward justice as they naively insist we be about compassion over all other considerations.
Here is how it gets practical very quickly: intelligence (ours and that of our allies) and the various law enforcement communities involved in this crisis do not have the means to cross check data when it is non-existent in any other data base. The due diligence background checks on individuals that could pose a terrorism threat to us in coming to the U.S. in refugee channels must be undertaken with extraordinary care and with far greater effort out in the region. Transparency is key as well. The idea that the Administration is only talking about bringing in orphans and women to the U.S. is highly misleading. Moreover, not all at-risk groups are being treated with equity. Incredibly, the Syrian Christian portion of refugees being looked at coming to the U.S. among the current pool is highly underrepresented at approximately 2% when in fact they represent about 10% of the population of Syria. In contrast, a protected class – the LGBT Syrians – are totally disproportionate in their representation in the would-be refugee grantee status. This double-standard is just one example of the incredible manipulation of the facts by this Administration.
In conclusion, we have been and continue to be a nation built on the premise of compassion but security simply cannot be ignored. A strategic pause is needed before accepting the first 10,000 Syrian refugees in order to answer myriad security related questions, and if that takes a long time, so be it. Compassion can continue to be shown in other ways.
In the meantime, I place the refugee problem at the President’s own doorstep as he refused to do more about Syria in 2011-2012 when much of the carnage there could have been prevented by showing strong leadership. He punted, and we are today where we are because of his cowardly and counter leadership actions in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and around the globe.
David R. Shedd held a variety of top level positions in the U.S. intelligence community including as acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency until January 2015 when he retired from government service after nearly 33 years. He is now a national security consultant, a visiting distinguished fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy and Adjunct Professor at Patrick Henry College.
If we needed conclusive proof of the degraded condition of America’s political leadership, we have it in the debate over the Syrian refugee crisis.
For the Republican Party and its conservative allies, this is their hour of shame. Last week 27 Republican governors declared that they would not accept any more Syrian refugees into their states. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives, by a vote of 289-137, passed a bill calling for the most stringent vetting process ever established for people fleeing a war-torn nation. Party leaders are repudiating President Obama’s call to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. Their rationale is that terrorists will slip in among the new arrivals and carry out a Paris-style attack in the United States.
The Republican Party’s response is a toxic mix of fear, exclusion, ignorance, and irrationality. Although conservatives have good reasons to doubt President Obama’s grasp of America’s national security threats, none of them justify a posture of cynicism and denial toward this human tragedy.
FBI Director James Comey lit the bonfire with his congressional testimony last month, when he warned that background checks on Syrian refugees can be problematic because of the lack of good intelligence in the theater of war. “If someone has never made a ripple in the pond in Syria in a way that would get their identity or their interest reflected in our database, we can query our database until the cows come home,” he said, “but there will be nothing showing up because we have no record of them.”
Despite repeated claims to the contrary, none of the Syrian refugees have been linked to the November 15 Paris attacks. Nevertheless,Republican presidential candidates have seized upon Mr. Comey’s testimony to discourage or bar Syrian refugees from entering the country.
Donald Trump warns of a “Trojan Horse” strategy that would allow terrorists to hide among their number. “This could be one of the great tactical ploys of all time,” he says. Ben Carson compares the threat of militants posing as refugees to a “rabid dog” prowling the neighborhood. “You’re probably going to put your children out of the way,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that you hate all dogs by any stretch of the imagination, but you’re putting your intellect into motion.”
The intellect is the one human faculty in this debate that is not in motion. Rather, the capacity for reason and moral reflection—the qualities of leadership desperately required at this hour—seems caught in a vice grip of irrationality.
Mr. Comey’s testimony about possible “gaps” in intelligence is accurate—but, taken out of context, badly misleading. Those who are using it to ban all Syrian refugees ignore the singular fact that the United States already has in place the toughest vetting process for refugees in the democratic West—much more discriminating than Europe with its open borders.
Refugees are first screened by the UN High Commission on Refugees, and only a fraction of those are selected for possible entry into the United States. They are then vetted by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the State Department, and Defense Department, and the Department of Homeland Security (involving an extensive, in-person interview). The entire process takes 18 to 24 months.
Barely 1,800 refugees have been allowed into the United States since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, a conflict that has displaced over 11 million people. Most are elderly men, women, and children. Many of them—including Muslims, Yazidis, Christians, and Jews—have been targeted for extinction either by the Syrian regime or the Islamic State. Two percent of the Syrian refugees now in the United States are single men of combat age.
No immigration system is risk-free. To demand such a system would mean shutting down all immigration into the United States—and betraying our deepest political and religious ideals in the process.
Republican leaders and their conservative allies seem prepared to abandon one of the most consequential ideas in history: the belief in American exceptionalism. Since the founding of the republic, Americans have insisted that their national interests must be tempered by their moral and religious interests—by their Judeo-Christian tradition that refuses to separate justice from mercy. They point to this historic commitment to explain the United States as a powerful global advocate for human dignity, democracy, and human rights.
President Obama—and the liberalism in which he lives and moves and has his being—rejects American exceptionalism. This accounts for his refusal to act on behalf of the Syrian people when acting decisively could have averted much of the killing and carnage. This explains why the president has watched, with stoic indifference, the transformation of Syria into a living hell for its people. He has allowed Bashar al-Assad to continue his genocidal campaign. He has declined to establish safe havens for Syrian refugees. For the first three years of the civil war, Mr. Obama, for all his recent moralizing, allowed exactly 30 Syrians per year to enter the United States.
It is hard to think of a president less qualified to lecture the nation about its moral obligations than this one. It is even harder to recall a commander in chief more naïve—even delusional—about the threat of Islamic radicalism.
Yet none of this excuses the hysterical and morally debased response of the Republican Party and its conservative allies. The victims of the Syrian civil war—and there are so many children among them—face a future of despair and destitution. The conflict has created a vortex of human suffering not seen since the end of the Second World War. Indeed, the last time the United States ignored a refugee crisis of this scale was during the administration of another liberal Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt, a master at separating his personal political interests from larger moral concerns. The victims, of course, were the Jews of Europe, trying to escape the fires of the Holocaust.
Yes, it is an hour of shame, an hour when the conscience of a nation has succumbed to a spirit of cowardice and fear. “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me,” wrote Emma Lazarus. “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” As the tempest rages on, America’s lamp is dimming.
Joseph Loconte, senior editor, is an associate professor of history at the King’s College in New York City and the author of A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918.
The current conflagration in Syria has left over 250,000 people dead and sparked the mass immigration crisis that is now posing major problems for Europe. A smarter and earlier intervention into this conflict could have shaped a different outcome, but here we are. President Obama has agreed to take in roughly 10,000 refugees from this ordeal. Though I think the President’s Syria policy may go down as his greatest failure in office, he seems to be attempting an about face by ordering some American advisors on the ground in Kurdish controlled regions in the north. Good for him.
In light of the latest terror attacks in Paris it struck me as entirely appropriate to take another look at our Syrian immigration policy. Former French chief of intelligence, Bernard Squarcini, has confirmed what most assumed: “Amongst the migrants, there are some terrorists.” If I were an elected representative or governor the latest massacre would, at a bare minimum, cause me to at least give it a second look.
But given our current political polarization, especially when it comes to immigration, this was bound to become a politicized issue. All over the internet pundits and advocates are decrying opposition by governors and elected representatives to Obama’s Syrian immigration plan.
That said, I do think there is at least an apparent moral dilemma here that Christians should think about before retreating to the barricades and beginning to lob political bombs at each other. The dilemma is the perennial political problem we face between charity and caution. It is foolish and theologically irresponsible to imagine the gospel requires us to have an immigration policy that would invite potential terrorists into our boarders. We are called to love our enemies, but that does not mean the American government should offer up American citizens on a platter to the wolves. Need I remind us of Luther’s astute observation about human nature east of Eden. “If the lion lies down with the lamb” he quips, “the lamb must be replaced frequently.” The idealist in foreign policy is dangerous not because their ideals are impractical or radical but because they cause us to act in ways that are deeply irresponsible and reckless.
On the other hand, World Relief has come out with a statement on the refugee crisis that is thoughtful and compelling. Most of the refugees in this crisis are regular people like you and I with families and children. As such, Christians should be at the forefront of protecting and caring for people fleeing violence and oppression. How could we not? They have made a treacherous journey across many miles to find safety and shelter. They are not responsible for the raging civil war that is tearing apart their country but live in the wake of its destruction. When we see the faces of children and mothers carrying babies we should feel a sickness in our stomach. To turn away is not only inhuman but unchristian, so callousness is not an option either.
How do we balance our need to be cautious and circumspect with our obligation to protect and care for our neighbors in need?
First we should distinguish between government policy and obligations of the church. The two cannot be the same, though we wouldn’t want to make the mistake of separating them too much. The church universal, the catholic church (small “c”!!), is the universal body of Christ and transcends national borders and locales. The state, at least in the West, exists for the benefit and safety of its citizens, and is, therefore, obliged to be partial in the serving the good of its citizens. World Relief makes no distinction in this regard. Yes, the church should be on the frontlines taking care of refugees and displaced peoples, but its not clear the American government faces a similar obligation to admit refugees because the American government is not a charity organization or the church and we should be glad that it is not. The Wilsonian vision of liberal internationalists, the United Nations, and the current pope threatens to erase this very important and vital distinction.
Second, charity itself does not foreswear prudence. Immigration is not the only option. If we are going to do our Syrian neighbors good we could look at other options such as the very obvious fact that the Gulf States should do much more than they are doing now. Further, suggestions offered up recently by Gen. David Petraeus before a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including imposing a no-fly zone and creating safe-havens within Syria seem realistic and doable though this would require greater American involvement and boots on the ground, something Obama is determined to avoid.
Lastly, and most importantly, charity would mean eventually dealing with the cancer that is metastasizing within Syria and Iraq, ISIS and the Assad regime. Thus far we have drawn red lines and postured but done little to address the black hole that threatens to engulf the whole Middle East. It strikes me as hypocritical that many of those who are enraged at opposition to Syrian immigration have little to no rage about the Syrian civil war and the incoherent and feckless policies of the Obama administration in addressing this crisis. We are talking about 10,000 refugees versus the 250,000 people who have been liquidated in this brutal civil war. But war, for many on the left and right, is not an option because of the failure in Iraq. We’d rather keep our hands clean than risk blood and treasure and that, in the end, is the real tragedy.
Daniel Strand is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St Augustine of Hippo.
The current controversy over admitting Syrian refugees into the country raises some very challenging questions for Evangelical Christians. On the one hand, for all the trite ways in which many verses about loving your neighbor and protecting the stranger have been used in this recent debate, there is, and rightly ought to be, a very real humanitarian streak in Evangelical foreign policy. On the other, many politicians often trusted by and associated with Evangelicals, Republicans in particular, have shown a deep and immediate skepticism to accepting refugees, with the support of what appears to be a majority of the public. President Obama’s hectoring and rather self-righteous tone, seemingly designed to alienate more than to persuade, has doubtless played its own role in current Evangelical ambivalence. Evangelicals have many reasons to be ambivalent, for both Republicans and the President have handled recent events poorly.
Christians can, and should, take pride in the active role played by organizations affiliated with our faith in refugee resettlement. There is a humanitarian duty for Christians to act—particularly given the way our brothers and sisters in Christ have been driven out of their homes by this crisis—and we ought not to shrink away from that duty. It is difficult to attribute much current, knee-jerk reaction against refugees to any source but fear. Both a Christian sensibility and the evidence of history suggest that policies based primarily on fear, particularly policies adopted quickly and in the face of tragedy, are rarely wise. I’m reminded of the post-Newtown gun control legislation rushed through the New York state house and senate that conspicuously forgot to exempt police. Recent ridiculous and unconstitutional comments by Donald Trump about establishing a database of Muslims [later disavowed] illustrate the dangers of crafting policy on the fly and in response to public fear. Finally, the response is foolish on pragmatic grounds. As Walter Russell Mead and Noah Rothman have argued, the refugee issue has been cynically manipulated by the Obama administration to distract attention from the failure of our policy with respect to ISIS (more on which below). Every moment Republicans spend talking about refugees is a moment in which they are playing into the politics of division and distraction, and are failing to address the role our failed policies have played in causing the crisis in the first place. Thus, even if they succeed in blocking the President’s policies, Republicans are allowing him to play the aggrieved martyr constrained by xenophobia, rather than admit to and grapple with his own profound policy failures.
Nonetheless, there are a few grave concerns Christians ought to express regarding the Administration’s refugee plans. First, there is the question of screening. The refugee and asylum-seeker screening process is arduous and evaluates claims on a case by case basis. While the number of refugees the administration plans to admit is fairly small, the stated desire to circumvent the normal refugee process is a bit concerning. Indeed, a policy of more refugees and better screening might be preferable to the Administration’s current approach. Additionally, in light of other recent government failures from the VA scandal to the OPM hack, vague assurances that things are under control do not seem credible. Christians are not uncompassionate for seeking a policy that is both humane and reasonably secure.
Two other issues are particularly salient to Christians: the character of the refugees and that of the organizations that provide services to them. Nina Shea and others have thoroughly documented the persecution of religious minorities, not only in their country of origin but also in the UN camps in neighboring countries and Europe. Calls to accept only Christian refugees are unwarranted and would unfairly exclude other religious minorities, such as Alawites and Yazidis, who face equivalent persecution. Yet some provision should be made to give preference to members of persecuted minorities. Contrary to many ridiculous claims that this represents a “religious test,” such a policy is entirely in keeping with past refugee policy, notably the emigration of Russian Jews under the 1970s-era Jackson-Vanik Amendment. The appointment of Knox Thames, a veteran of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, as a State Department Special Advisor for religious minorities in the Near East and South-Central Asia, is a good start, but as Shea reports, the number of Christians and Yazidis admitted since the conflict began is in double digits; this must change.
One issue that has not been discussed is the character of organizations that aid refugees, a majority of which are faith-based. The Obama Administration’s track record of respect for faith-based charitable organizations is poor, to say the least. Even when such organizations are coping with crises such as providing services to victims of human trafficking and unaccompanied minors crossing the border, religious organizations have been penalized for acting according to their religious conscience. Faith-based organizations should receive some assurance from the Obama Administration that the President’s other ideological goals will not take precedent over the provision of services to refugees.
Finally, it is essential that all of us, Christian and non-Christian alike, return to the central underlying issue: our failed strategy against ISIS. We must recognize that, without the destruction of ISIS, a political solution in Syria and Iraq is impossible, and hence, the refugee crisis, as well as the broader crisis of annihilation faced by our brothers and sisters in these countries, cannot be resolved. We must also recognize that our current anti-ISIS strategy has demonstrably failed. It is long past time for a reappraisal of this strategy, the flawed assumptions underpinning it, and the necessary strategic changes we must make if ISIS is to be defeated. This reappraisal will be the subject of my next post.
A.J. Nolte is an Adjunct Professor of politics at Messiah College, a Ph.D. candidate at Catholic University of America and a candidate for Ordination in the Anglican Church of North America, Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic. His research areas include religion and international politics, political Islam, Christian minorities and religious freedom.