Facing the ‘refugee problem’

Opinion by Mina Shah
Jan. 3, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

As the initial shock and emotion following the attacks in Paris during the weekend of Nov. 13 wears off, those feelings are replaced by a sense of nervousness and, quite frankly, overwhelming dread. Why is this? The “refugee problem.”

In the past several weeks, there have been an increasing number of conversations about the situation surrounding refugees in the E.U. There have also been conversations about how both the U.S. and European countries plan to move forward with regards to refugee admittance policies, likely keeping the events in Paris in the forefront of their minds. It is very possible that these policy discussions could lead to the tightening of borders and the exclusion of Syrian refugees from the U.S. and European countries. However, tightening borders is essentially the last thing that we should be doing in response to the attacks.

First, just to clear the air, officials following the case have discovered that the terrorists who attacked the City of Lights are European nationals, not refugees. The popular belief that the threat of terror attacks has to do with the refugees themselves is incorrect. The root cause, in reality, is closer to the fact that anti-Islamic sentiments in European spaces make radical extremism more attractive to some young Muslims living in Europe. This added attractiveness leads to more what we might call “homegrown” terrorists, or folks who become radicalized and then attack their own home spaces. Thus, we needn’t even worry about folks who really do have refugee status creating problems or putting anyone in physical danger, because homegrown terrorists pose more of a risk.

Second, terror acts like this are the sort that the refugees from Syria are trying to flee. The civil war that has been going on there since 2011 has made living conditions in the country extremely dangerous. Over a quarter of a million people have died, war crimes have been committed and chemical weapons have been used. Civilians aren’t safe. It’s no wonder that folks are leaving such a situation, and if they are asking for our help or shelter, we should provide it.

Third, let us not forget that gaining refugee status and then gaining entry to a country are, in the first place, long and rigorous processes. In order to gain refugee status, a person must first receive the appropriate referral. After the referral comes through, it must be ensured that the person meets the requirements for eligibility, after which the person receives confirmation that the eligibility is valid. One of the requirements to be eligible for entry into the U.S. as a refugee is, of course, to be classified as a refugee by the U.N. Unfortunately, this is not an easy or simple thing to accomplish, because the U.N. tends to use the label as sparsely as possible. It may sometimes be difficult for people who desperately need to get away from their homes as a result of legitimate safety concerns to find a place of refuge. The process of becoming a refugee and then gaining access to countries for asylum is difficult enough without us adding extra barriers to entry and discriminating against those who have already jumped through the various required hoops.

Fourth, it’s important to point out that by denying refugees entry into our country or making it more difficult for them to enter, we are, in fact, doing exactly what ISIS wants us to do. The goal is to turn humans against one another in order to effectively create more fear. If we deny our fellow humans the safety and protection that they deserve, we are doing so out of fear. We need to be fearless and band together, which means welcoming, not denying, refugees into the country in order to form allyship and defeat the enemy.

The idea of making it more difficult for refugees to enter our country is terrifying. Think about it from a purely human standpoint. We should want to be, at the very least, a resource in terms of providing support spaces for our fellow humans. What if it were you, or your family, trying to escape from a truly dangerous situation, from what everyone in the world has come to the consensus is a truly dangerous situation, and no one wanted to help you? What if everyone turned you away, leaving you in a space where you had to fear for your life every day?

The truth is, if these refugees cannot find a safe place to stay and are forced to remain in their country or are unable to gain the minimal benefits of acquiring the status of a refugee, they will die. Or at least live in misery, possibly for the rest of their lives. If we remain complacent and allow this to happen, we are morally culpable for the negative things that happen to them. Silence is siding with the enemy.

I realize that I may have not been thoroughly persuasive about the fact that we should be working to open our borders to Syrian refugees instead of closing them down further. So to those of you who may still have fears about allowing individuals and families who are asking for help into our country, John Oliver has a pretty solid reminder for us about the fact of historical reality that the only time that refugees have actually taken over a country after first landing and put its original inhabitants in danger (read: exterminated) is something that we sit around a table to celebrate during the last Thursday in November.


Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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