Over the weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated the Obama administration’s commitment to taking in 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next fiscal year and announced that the federal government would be increasing its annual total refugee cap from 70,000 to 100,000 by 2017, to accommodate more refugees from war-torn Syria. “This step that I am announcing today, I believe, is in keeping with the best tradition of America as a land of second chances and a beacon of hope,” said Kerry on Sunday during a trip to Germany.
Also on Sunday, Hillary Clinton called on the administration to take 65,000 Syrian refugees, declaring, “I want the United States to lead the world.” Her Democratic opponent Martin O’Malley endorsed the same target earlier this month.
1. Can we distinguish between genuine refugees and economic migrants?
Despite being billed as a “refugee crisis,” what is unfolding along Europe’s borders is a mixed migration of asylum seekers and economic migrants. The European Union’s official statistical agency, Eurostat, recorded 213,0000 arrived migrants in April, May, and June of this year; only 44,000 — 1 in five — were fleeing war in Syria. With new international attention turned to the problem over the last month, that proportion likely has changed. But even the International Organization for Migration reports that Syrians make up only 40 percent of the total migrant population. Another 11 percent are Afghans fleeing the Taliban; Eritreans fleeing their own oppressive government are 7 percent; and many thousands more hail from Iraq, Pakistan, and sub-Saharan Africa.
Perhaps the most telling statistic is the ratio of men to women and children in the overall migrant population: 72 percent to 13 percent and 15 percent, respectively, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Given the typical profile of economic migrants, this dramatic disproportion suggests that many men are seeking economic opportunity, not sanctuary from violence.
2. If so, can we adequately investigate refugees to make sure none have ties to terrorist organizations?
It is a virtual certainty that terrorist organizations are taking advantage of the crisis to insinuate themselves into Europe.
Syria and Iraq are, of course, home to the world’s most flamboyantly wicked terrorist outfit, the Islamic State, which continues to consume territory in the region. The CIA estimated last November that the organization was fielding approximately 30,000 fighters in the region, but Russian intelligence has suggested double that number, and Kurdish leaders have protested that the total could be upwards of 200,000. Furthermore, the Islamic State has demonstrated its ability to attract recruits from well outside its geographical borders. According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, 21,000 foreign volunteers had signed on with the Islamic State as of January; nearly one-fifth were from Western Europe. With effective control of 115,000-plus square miles and an online presence that tallies upwards of 90,000 social-media posts daily — much of that total from Islamic State supporters posting independently — the Islamic State’s ability to manipulate the migrant crisis to its ends is hardly negligible. Given the sheer magnitude of the migration, it is a virtual certainty that terrorist organizations are taking advantage of the crisis to insinuate themselves into Europe.
3. If so, can we prioritize actually vulnerable refugees?
The heart-rending photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi dead on a Turkish beach turned international attention to the migrant crisis. But Aylan and his family were entirely out of harm’s way. According to the Guardian, the Kurdi family had been living in Turkey for three years. Aylan’s father, Abdullah, was seeking to move the family to Sweden — to get dental care.
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According to the UNHCR, just under 2 million Syrian refugees currently reside in Turkey. More than 1 million are in Lebanon, and 600,000 are in Jordan. While none of these refugees’ living situations are desirable, they are all effectively free of the danger engulfing certain parts of Syria and Iraq. If the United States must take refugees, it should focus on those in greatest danger. Could we prioritize Syrian Christians, who are being systematically wiped out by Islamist forces? Could we prioritize Yazidis, who continue to be the subject of vicious persecution? The United States should not be airlifting families already residing in safety.
4. If so, can Syrian refugees be hosted in a way that does not overburden local communities?
America’s Somali population, constituted primarily of refugees since civil war broke out in the late 1980s, offers a paradigm for evaluating the potential consequences of accepting a large population of Syrian refugees. The United States has resettled more than 80,000 Somali refugees since 1983; some 30,000 of them have ended up in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. As the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported last November:
The number of Somali adults and children who participated in the state’s family cash assistance program jumped 34 percent from 2008 to 2013, to 5,950. At the same time, food assistance participation increased 98 percent, to 17,300 adults and children, which does not include U.S.-born Somalis.
The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement reports that 91.4 percent of refugees from the Middle East (the definition of which does not include Somalia) were on food stamps in Fiscal Year 2013, and 68.3 percent were on some type of cash assistance.
And, of course, the economic burdens of resettling Syrian migrants would come atop the burdens American taxpayers have assumed following last summer’s influx of unaccompanied minors across the U.S.-Mexico border.
5. If so, can Syrian-refugee communities prevent the rise of Islamism in the second and third generations?Again taking the Somali experience as a paradigm, surely the most troubling phenomenon is the exodus of young men and women — more than 60 from the Twin Cities to date — to join al-Shabaab and the Islamic State in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. Overwhelmingly these young men and women were born in the United States, suggesting that subsequent generations are subject to a destabilizing tension between their “native” and “adopted” countries. Given the disinclination to require of new populations substantive assimilation, and given that Syria’s Islamism is more potent and more aggressive than Somalia’s has ever been, it is not difficult to imagine that the consequences of receiving a large Syrian-refugee population may not fully manifest themselves for decades.
Before demanding that Americans acquiesce to accepting more refugees, President Obama should show that his administration has considered these questions. But I have little doubt that “compassion” has gotten far out ahead of careful thinking.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow in political journalism at the National Review Institute.