The Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan Source: U.S. State Department, Creative Commons

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.

As anyone who has watched the primary debates knows, political positions are often magnified during presidential campaigns. Candidates differentiate themselves from the competition and court votes by taking politically unorthodox stances on domestic and foreign policy issues. But out of all the issues that have come up during the campaign, few have been met with a more chilling reception than the expansion of a Syrian refugee program in the United States.  Out of nineteen candidates, only Martin O’Malley has called for a concrete number of Syrian refugees to be admitted into the U.S.

While Americans generally agree that we should be “doing more” in response to the refugee crisis, the idea of accepting more than a paltry amount of refugees is very divisive. Why is this issue so contentious? America has a long history of welcoming international refugees, and the Syrians are certainly in need of help. European nations, flooded with refugees, are rapidly turning against expanded immigration, and millions of refugees are currently stuffed into poorly kept camps across Europe and the Middle East. In this article I will break down the reasons for America’s resistance to further Syrian immigration, and address their validity.

First and foremost, Americans are concerned about terrorism. Over 72% of Americans have expressed concern that Syrian refugees pose a national security risk to the United States, and U.S. counterterrorism officials  have described Syrian refugees as a potential “population of concern” . Presidential Candidates have also joined in, with responses ranging from tepid to downright hostility. Is this concern valid? State department officials have argued that their intensive vetting procedures will catch any potential terrorists. Refugees are typically put through grueling investigations by highly trained security officers, interviews by the Department of Homeland Security, and an extensive review of their biographies. These investigations are expensive, and extra security procedures put in place since 9/11 has raised the bill even higher. Comprehensive vetting also means the real rate of refugee immigration will be much lower, as some refugees can spend years in limbo. These investigations will also be hampered by a near nonexistent level of information. Syrian government records, if they exist, will likely not be accessible to American officials, and the U.S. government also has next to no “on the ground” intelligence footprint in Syria. As such, even the most rigorous of assessment procedures may be left wanting.

 Refugee strike activists pose in front of Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Source: Deutschhilde, Creative Commons

Refugee strike activists pose in front of Brandenburg Gate, Berlin
Source: Deutschhilde, Creative Commons

Even if the proper information can be acquired and accurately assessed, it’s an open question as to how effective the vetting process would be anyway. In Syria, three years of a brutal civil war have blurred the lines between civilian and combatant. It is difficult to live in Syria without some sort of connection to Islamist groups, and that is almost always a deal-breaker for resettlement.  If a member of a refugee family has ever been affiliated or provided “material support” to a terrorist group, their entire family is banned from resettlement to the U.S. For many refugees this clause is a nonstarter. Some Syrians relied on groups like ISIS and Al-Nursa for food and electricity, and many Syrian teenagers were forcibly recruited into Islamist groups. This further complicates the State department’s task. In a nation where practically everyone has had some level of interaction with Islamist militias, what constitutes a terrorist affiliation? If officials are too harsh the process risks becoming draconian and wasteful, but leniency could also expose potential openings for terrorists.

However, even if America’s ability to properly vet each refugee is not up to par, it may not matter. Islamist groups like ISIS are focused on warfare in Syria; they do not have the leeway to tie up a considerable amount of manpower into U.S. vetting programs for months on end. Even if ISIS was interested in carrying out international terrorist attacks in the immediate future, Europe is a much more viable target. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have already inundated European security agencies, and it is unlikely any of these countries will be able to properly vet their refugees. Also, if Islamist groups truly wanted to target America, there are easier and faster ways to get there than by going through the complex refugee resettlement program. The U.S.’s southern border has been porous for a decade, and four members of the Turkish PKK were able to make the journey to Mexico in 2014.  Furthermore, out of the 750,000 refugees who have been admitted into America since 9/11, only two have been arrested on terrorism charges.  This suggests that either the State department’s vetting process is very effective, or terrorist are not attempting to masquerade as refugees.

"Syrian refugees strike at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station." Source: Mstyslav Chernov, Creative Commons

“Syrian refugees strike at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station.”
Source: Mstyslav Chernov, Creative Commons

Americans are also worried about both the cost and economic impact of expanded refugee immigration. In 2014 resettlement cost on average $15,714 per person, although that cost will increase as the number of accepted Syrian refugees rises, as the U.S.’s refugee system is not well adapted to handle large surges of refugees. As such, we can expect an immigration of 100 thousand refugees to cost around 2 billion dollars. While this cost is not insignificant, it is nowhere near “crushing”. In addition, the Brookings institution found that while refugee laborers in Turkey did displace some unskilled informal and part-time workers, they also “generated more formal non-agricultural jobs and an increase in average wages for Turkish workers”. Many Syrians are relatively well educated, and are able to succeed in white collar jobs. Furthermore, many displaced workers in Turkey have returned to vocational and formal schooling, and will likely generate an increase in their wages when returning to the market.

The above referenced study focused on the emigration of Syrian workers to Middle Eastern countries like Turkey and Lebanon. It is an open question as to how successful Syrians will be if they are not carefully placed into supporting communities. Uruguay’s recent debacle with their resettlement program shows it can be very difficult for refugees to adapt to an unfamiliar culture, especially if they don’t speak the language. While Syrian communities across the United States have offered to take in Refugees, these communities may not be able to handle an influx of a few hundred thousand people.  Regardless, as long as refugees are placed in supporting communities, it is difficult to support claims that Syrian refugees will be a “burden” on the state, or “waste tax dollars”. Across Europe, refugees have already shown themselves to be industrious and motivated, and I suspect the same will be true of those resettled in America.


Syrian Refugees at Budapest Keleti railway station Source: Rebecca Harms, Creative Commons


It’s important to remember that refugees are not immigrants. They may be fleeing from a brutal, devastating civil war, but they are also leaving their homes. Throughout history, refugees have shown that, given the opportunity, they will always return to their homelands. Out of the 2.7 million people who fled Bosnia between 1992 and 1995, 2.5 million have returned home.  As such, Americans must separate immigration policy from refugee policy. These refugees are not seeking improved job prospects or a higher income, for the most part; they are just trying to “wait out the storm” until they can return home. However, even with the combined intervention of the European, American, and Russian militaries, the war in Syria promises to be a long and grueling conflict.

European nations will not collapse under the weight of Syrian refugees, but the huge inflows of people have certainty pushed their capabilities to the limit. As such, our European allies may be left feeling cheated. While the U.S. is not obliged under any treaties to accept Syrian immigrants, it is not difficult to argue that U.S. policy over the last 20 years has contributed to the destabilization of the Middle East, and thus the refugee crisis. Our refusal to share the burden for the Syrian conflict is in part a rejection of our own responsibility for the war. It is also important to remember the impact of our actions on our perception abroad. America’s refusal to welcome a significant share of the refugees will discredit any future criticism about other nation’s treatment of peoples in distress.

While American’s concerns over imported terrorism are to a degree understandable, they are ultimately irrational. The U.S. has a moral imperative to accept and accommodate refugees whenever possible, and the isolated risk of a miscreant making his way through the State department’s vetting process is not significant enough to reject hundreds of thousands of people in need.

Disclaimer: “The views expressed in this post solely reflect the author’s opinion, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Reiff Center or Christopher Newport University.”