Opinion: The Case for Syrian Refugees

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By Vaibhav Kumar

In 2011, the Arab Spring began in the Middle East and with it came the overthrowing of dictatorships around the region. It began in Tunisia with the overthrowing of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 25, 2011 and soon after revolutionaries overthrew Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

During this time in Syria, the population also tried to depose their dictator, Bashar Al-Assad. Assad refused to step down despite these protests, and a huge civil war followed. International actors were quickly pulled into this conflict. Soon enough, places like the United States, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the EU came out to back the diverse rebel groups. Furthermore, countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia continued to send military supplies to the rebel groups in protest of Assad’s grip on power. This involvement lead to a proxy war in the region.

While all of this was happening, nations like Iran and Russia joined the proxy war by supporting Assad. Russia has economic and strategic interests in supporting Assad as Syria was one of Russia’s biggest military clients. Syria’s location was also crucial as the last access point to the Mediterranean Sea for the Russians. Iran joined this war because of its strategic relationship with Assad, based in part on sectarian considerations. Iran was fighting other Sunni groups just like Syria was, which allowed both countries to cooperate.

As time went on, the situation worsened with the rise of terrorist organizations like ISIS and the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. Amidst all this conflict were innocent Syrians. The question of allowing Syrian refugees into America became more prominent during this election season, especially with thousands and thousands of refugees flowing through Europe and the Middle East. 51 percent of the American public believes that the United States should not allow Syrian refugees into the country because of the national security threat these refugees present, given their migration from a destabilized region like Syria. That line of logic is convincing – what rational American would want to increase the risk of home grown terror by allowing refugees shelter in their country?


The Paris attacks on November 15, 2015 set off a round of debates over whether accepting refugees in America would be detrimental to our national security. Donald Trump Jr. recently summarized the issue via Twitter with a simple analogy that resonated with many constituents. The tweet states that, “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three were poisonous. Would you take a handful? That is our Syrian Refugee Problem.” No levelheaded person would take the risk and eat those skittles knowing three of them are toxic. Likewise, Trump Jr.’s argument is that the government should not take refugees from Syria knowing that there is a high chance that three out of every 50 of them will be terrorists. If these numbers were anywhere near accurate, this risk assessment would be reasonable. In reality, these estimated are wildly exaggerated.

Let’s begin by explaining the process of how these refugees come to America. First, a refugee must apply to the United Nations of High Commission of Refugees, which collects documentation and includes an interview process. Most refugees don’t have access to these required documents, which minimizes the number of individuals that can get past this step of the screening process. As a result, only 1 percent of applicants are allowed past this stage. The National Counterterrorism Center, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are the first agencies to begin the screening process. Syrian applicants undergo an additional layer of screening called the Syria Enhanced Review, which may include a further check by the DHS group called the USCIC (United States Citizenship and Immigration Service) to check for fraud.

After all this, USCIS officers receive applicants’ fingerprints and run them through the biometric databases of the FBI, DHS, and the Department of Defense. Then, the government obtains health records to ensure the refugee is fit enough to enter the United States. If that comes back clear, the refugee will be enrolled in cultural orientation classes. All the while, the information previously compiled is regularly rechecked in databases, and the government conducts further periodic investigations to ensure no new information slips through.

This detailed step-by-step process usually takes two years to ensure no “terrorist” gains entry into America as a refugee. In addition, John Oliver stated on his show “Last Week Tonight” that “No terrorist in their right mind would choose this path when the visa process requires far less effort.”

The CATO institute also released a report detailing that since 2001, almost 860,000 refugees have come to the United States. Out of this amount, only three have been found planning terrorist attacks and none of these plans were ever realized. The article continues and says, “To put that in perspective, about 1 in every 22,541 Americans committed murder in 2014.” A more recent CATO study from September 13, 2016 also found that the chance of being killed by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion. America’s murder rate is at 4.5 per 100,000 which is about 163,800 times higher than the odds of being killed by a refugee. There is low-level inherent risk in almost every daily task; rational individuals accept these risks because they are outweighed by other benefits. That’s the reason people drive cars even though almost 35,200 people died in automobile accidents in 2015. Accepting risk in life is part of our daily life, and the vetting process is already so strict that the risk should be acceptable.

Understanding the facts calls into question Donald Trump Jr.’s Skittle analogy. To begin, this is a gross example of dehumanization that delegitimizes the very real struggle that 13.5 million Syrians have faced. Ignore the morally bankrupt argument Trump Jr. employs for a moment. His claims also have no factual basis. To make this analogy correct, one would need 10.93 billion skittles, or 1.5 Olympic-size swimming pools full of skittles. His analogy also ignores the rigorous screening process a refugee must pass in order to enter the country. That’s equivalent to eating a skittle after it has been vigorously checked by the FDA and almost 10 other food regulatory agencies for 18 to 24 months. Now instead of just eating skittles, replace it with saving hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.

Not only is allowing Syrian refugees into the country a moral imperative, but it is also economically advantageous. Leaving Europe and other Middle Eastern countries to accept the influx of displaced families alone strains the entire region. The U.S. interests in maintaining European cooperation have come about mainly because of the Syrian refugee crisis. The refugee crisis brought a wave of nativism and anti-immigration beliefs to places like England. Accepting refugees in America would decrease the burden put on areas in Europe and the Middle East.

Refugees have also proven to boost the economy in many ways. Some might forget that Syria was not an extremely poor and unskilled country before the war. Plenty of these refugees are doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who would add skills to the labor force. In addition, a lot of these refugees are more entrepreneurial than the average citizen. Opening small businesses helps the economy as it did in Turkey after the influx of Syrians. Finally, admitting Syrian refugees can help the economy simply because it increases the amount of people who can be taxed by the government. Many pundits believe that these refugees will be reliant on social spending programs like food stamps, but in the long run allowing refugees increases the amount of citizens the government can tax.

It is fair to worry about the safety of your family and country, but Americans must realize that this view places a large burden on other peace-loving innocents who are stuck in tragic circumstances. The reaction to refugees across America is grounded not in fact but rather in fear-mongering. Refugees are not a rational threat. America needs to continue to ask whether it wants to be known as the country that simply stood by in the face of the slaughter of Syrians or a country that is ready to help resolve an ongoing injustice that the Syrians are forced to suffer on a daily basis.

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