The Syrian Refugee Crisis and Islamophobia by Shruti Jaishankar

The Syrian Refugee Crisis and Islamophobia

The Syrian Civil War has raged for approximately four years now, as the conflict arose as a part of the Arab Spring movement that swept the Middle East. While policymakers and pundits alike have ruminated on how best to contain the region, the question of what to do with the millions of displaced Syrian citizens has come secondary.

Until recently. The body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee fleeing with his family to the Greek island of Kos, provided fodder for a renewed debate on how to protect the innocent. Though the Kurdis had been living in Turkey for three years after they escaped Syria, the family cites Western states’ reluctance to provide safe passage for refugees as part of the reason for the tragedy.[1] Sadly, the Kurdis are not an unusual story; around 2,700 refugees have perished while trying to cross the Mediterranean, and as many as 200 have died in one trip.[2] Approximately 12 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes, creating a crisis as they flood into neighboring countries, Europe, and eventually the Western hemisphere.[3]

European nations are quickly becoming overwhelmed by the influx of refugees, and some have resorted to erecting stringent border controls in response. These border controls and the hostility they represent are problematic, as refugees are entitled to certain basic protections set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention.[4] Under the convention refugees are given the opportunity to apply for political asylum, and may not be sent back to the country that endangered their lives in the first place.[5] As long as a refugee can prove that they are fleeing a hostile or volatile situation, such as a civil war, they must be afforded these basic protections. Border controls and unnecessary bureaucratic structures hinder the spirit of the 1951 convention.

Though many European nations may not have the political or economic infrastructure to support the deluge of refugees, the United States has no such defense. In the four years since the Syrian Civil War broke out, the United States has only accepted about 1,500 Syrian refugees.[6] This is due in part to the additional bureaucratic hurdles that refugees must surmount in order to seek asylum in the United States. Unlike in Europe, the State Department must first vet a select number of refugees before they make seek asylum in the United States.[7] The vetting process is extensive: they must be screened by the National Counter Terrorism Center, the FBI Terrorist Screening Center, and by the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense.[8] Though President Obama has pledged to accept up to 10,000 Syrian refugees in the upcoming fiscal year, that number is not nearly enough and the process will be slow and painful considering the bureaucratic red tape these refugees must first navigate.[9]

The bureaucratic impediments in both Europe and the United States are admittedly due to national security concerns, but are also symptomatic of a larger problem – rampant and unchecked Islamophobia. Before the attacks on the World Trade Center, the United States offered asylum to hundreds of thousands of refugees. During the era of the Vietnam War, the United States took in almost 300,000 refugees over a span of two years from the ravaged area.[10] A few years later, the United States would take in more than 100,000 refugees from Cuba.[11] However, since September 11, 2001, the US has shown a marked reluctance to welcome refugees from the Middle East, reducing the number of immigrants allowed into the country from the hundreds of thousands to about 20,000.[12] The United States sees these refugees as potential terrorists first, and as displaced families fleeing from violence last. The Islamophobia problem has grown so serious in the United States that it has resulted in a 14-year-old-boy being arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school because of its supposed resemblance to a bomb.[13] A leading GOP presidential candidate even declaimed that a Muslim cannot be president of the United States.[14] Ahmed Mohamed and the refugees from Syria share “that menacing brownish color that racists and bigots associate with…. Some country they probably think is called Terroristan.”[15]

Neither the Syrian Refugee Crisis nor the instability in the Middle East have an obvious solution, but the United States and other developed countries can do the most immediate good by relaxing barriers to entry for refugees. Doing so may not curb Islamophobia in the United States, but at least will prevent more senseless deaths like Aylan Kurdis.

[1] Helena Smith, Aylan Kurdi: Friends and Family Fill in Gaps Behind Harrowing Images, The Guardian (Sept. 3, 2015), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/03/refugee-crisis-friends-and-family-fill-in-gaps-behind-harrowing-images

[2] Zack Beauchamp, The Syrian Refugee Crisis, Explained in One Map, Vox Magazine, (Sept. 27, 2015), http://www.vox.com/2015/9/27/9394959/syria-refugee-map

[3] Id.

[4] Somini Sengupta, Migrant or Refugee? There is a Difference, with Legal Implications, The New York Times (Aug. 27, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/28/world/migrants-refugees-europe-syria.html?action=click&contentCollection=Middle%20East&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article

[5] Id.

[6] Gardiner Harris, David Herszenhorn, and David E. Sanger, Obama Increases Number of Syrian Refugees for U.S. Resettlement, The New York Times, (Sept. 10, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/11/world/middleeast/obama-directs-administration-to-accept-10000-syrian-refugees.html

[7] Sengupta supra note 4.

[8] Harris, Herszenhorn, and Sanger supra note 6 at 1.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Haroon Moghul, Stand with Ahmed Against Islamophobia, Cnn, (Sept. 16, 2015), http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/16/opinions/moghul-islamophobia-america/

[14] Nick Gass, Ben Carson: America’s President Can’t Be Muslim, politico (Sept. 20, 2015), http://www.politico.com/story/2015/09/ben-carson-muslim-president-213851

[15] Id.

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