As holiday shoppers empty their wallets to buy presents for family and friends, there’s been an outbreak of miserliness among our politicians — directed at some of the world’s most helpless people.
At least 30 Republican governors, and one Democrat, are vowing to bar Syrian refugees from their states. One family was actually turned away at the Indiana state line when the local resettlement agency got a nasty phone call from the authorities.
In Washington, 47 House Democrats joined their Republican colleagues to pass a bill requiring each and every Syrian applying to enter the United States to be personally approved by the heads of three intelligence agencies. That would include “widows and orphans,” says President Barack Obama, who rightly opposes the measure.
It’s not just an American affliction. In late November the European Union signed a deal with Turkey offering that country nearly $3.2 billion to clamp down on refugees trying to exit across its borders. The EU has such pacts with Libya and Morocco, too.
What’s with the mean spirits? It’s supposed to be the season of generosity.
The immediate trigger is fear, prompted in part by false reports that one of the terrorists who attacked Paris on November 13 was a recent Syrian migrant. In fact, almost all of the assailants identified so far were Belgian or French citizens. But it’s only too easy for demagogues like the Republican presidential candidates to dream up nightmare scenarios about a jihadi militant or two sneaking into America disguised as an asylum seeker.
Sure enough, after the terrible mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, Rand Paul put forward a measure in Congress that would have imposed an “immediate moratorium” on visas for refugees from “high-risk” countries. Neither of the killers was a refugee — one was born in America and the other grew up in U.S.-allied Saudi Arabia. And they obtained every piece of their enormous arsenal right here in the US of A, legally.
Paul’s opportunism taps into deep currents of anti-Muslim prejudice that politicians have been stirring up for years.
When Donald Trump says that mosques should be under permanent surveillance and that Muslims should be barred from entering the country, or when Jeb Bush says that Syrian Christians can move here but not Muslims, they send a clear message: They believe all Muslims are potential terrorists.
This dark hint isn’t just the opposite of charity. It’s racist — and downright perverse.
Syrian refugees are fleeing from terrorism, whether by the regime of Bashar al-Assad or his radical Islamist opponents, among them the Islamic State. Over half of Syria’s 22 million people have been displaced from their homes over the course of the dreadful civil war — now a proxy war — that has raged there since 2011.
The pace of flight has increased with the Russian airstrikes on the side of the regime. In October alone, the UN reported, 120,000 people were forced to leave areas that had previously been spared the worst of the fighting.
Syrians run first to relatives in other provinces, then to neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. But those front-line nations lack the resources to absorb the refugees indefinitely. So, more and more, Syrians are spending their savings to head westward via dangerous smuggling routes. Far too many are dying along the way.
Ben Carson, another GOP White House hopeful, visited a refugee camp in Jordan and claimed that most of the residents want to return home rather than come to America. He’s not wrong, exactly — anyone would rather live in familiar surroundings than in a strange country across the ocean.
But Carson left out the important part: Syrians only want to go home when it’s safe. That day, sadly, is a long way off.
In the meantime, the United States and Europe can save lives by easing the restrictions on formal, legal refugee resettlement. We should welcome as many escapees from the Syrian catastrophe as possible.
‘Tis the season of giving, not barring the door.
Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report, published by the Middle East Research and Information Project in Washington, DC.