US refugee ban is about cynical politics not security

Concern CEO Dominic MacSorley reflects on impact of refugee ban imposed by Trump's administration, and the alarmingly similar approaches emerging in Europe and elsewhere.  

Concern Worldwide CEO, Dominic Mac Sorley and Lebanon Country Director, Elke Leidel with residents of a collective centre for Syrian refugees in Northern Lebanon. Photo: Kieran McConville/Concern Worldwide.
Concern Worldwide CEO, Dominic Mac Sorley and Lebanon Country Director, Elke Leidel with residents of a collective centre for Syrian refugees in Northern Lebanon. Photo: Kieran McConville/Concern Worldwide.

This opinion piece was first published in the The Irish Times on 3 February 2017. 

In 1783, George Washington famously declared that the “bosom of America is open”, not only to the “opulent and respectable stranger”, but also to “the oppressed and persecuted”. Since then, the United States has been a destination of hope for many destitute and displaced people fleeing conflict and persecution. The symbolic power of the iconic Statue of Liberty, with its beacon of light inviting the ‘tired huddled masses yearning to be free’ has an unparalleled global resonance, particularly for those from nations such as our own that have faced the scourge of conflict or starvation.

The refugee ban imposed by the Trump administration in the last week has profoundly betrayed this noble heritage. The President’s executive order marks the first time since 1965 that a US president has sought to bar people because of their nation of origin and religion.

Though its stated justification lies in the prevention of terrorism, the truth is that refugees seeking admission to the US already go through extensive vetting: a refugee's identity is checked against law enforcement and intelligence databases of at least five federal agencies, a process that takes nearly two years. Moreover, no refugee in the United States, whether from Syria or any other country, has been implicated in a fatal terrorist attack since the Refugee Act of 1980 set up procedures for accepting refugees into the United States. These people should not be viewed as terrorists, but as people have been terrorized and who need and deserve our assistance.

Maria Nader, Community Site Coordinator for Concern Worldwide with a baby born in Lebanon to Syrian parents in Hazzoury collective centre, run by Concern Worldwide in Halba, Lebanon. Photo: Kieran McConville/Concern Worldwide.
Maria Nader, Community Site Coordinator for Concern Worldwide with a baby born in Lebanon to Syrian parents in Hazzoury collective centre, run by Concern Worldwide in Halba, Lebanon. Photo: Kieran McConville/Concern Worldwide.

This appears to be, not a security move, but a cynical political one. It appeals to the lowest denominator, fear, and is ultimately a refusal to confront the inconvenient realities of the volatile world in which we live today. In many ways, it represents a continued pattern of similarly negative political developments in Europe and elsewhere that reflect the same regressive approach to the global humanitarian challenges posed by conflict and displacement. It is also why European criticism of last week’s executive order, while an essential voice, may, by some, be more easily dismissed as hypocritical. 

65 million displaced worldwide

The world is facing its largest crisis of displaced people since World War II, with more than 65 million people forced to flee their homes because of war and protracted conflict in countries like Syria, Somalia, and Afghanistan. These are the people we all have a moral obligation to help, but few nations are living up to this obligation.

The truth is that the vast majority of the world’s refugees are not hosted in the nations with the largest wealth, but in countries with weak or vulnerable economies. Only 18% of the world’s displaced populations are hosted in Europe and the Americas, while countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan and Ethiopia shoulder a far greater portion of the world’s refugees. Turkey and Lebanon are host to over 2.8 and 1.1 million Syrian refugees, respectively – a vast contrast to the now 50,000 upper limit of refugees of any origin that the US can now officially bring in every year.  

US ban: unnecessary, unjust and ineffectual

The US refugee ban is unnecessary, unjust and ineffectual, but the worst impact may not be on the hundreds stranded at US airports, but in the ominous signal that it sends across the world, to those neighbouring nations, those that have given shelter to millions of refugees, that it is somehow acceptable to refuse entry to refugees on the basis of national interest, that the Geneva Convention means nothing – that refugees have no rights, and that states have no obligation to people feeling from persecution.

This effect is not new. We are already seeing nations like Kenya proposing to repatriate great numbers of Somali refugees from Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, citing the EU-Turkey deal as evidence that it is shouldering a disproportionate amount of responsibility.

As the conflict in Syria enters its sixth year and becomes more protracted than the Second World War, there is a danger of us becoming fatigued and desensitized to the level of suffering being experienced by civilian populations caught up in the conflict. But we cannot become inured to the Mediterranean becoming a graveyard. We cannot resign ourselves to accepting intractable conflicts in Syria, South Sudan and elsewhere, and most importantly, we cannot turn our backs on the innocent civilians – women and children – fleeing from these warzones.

Nyakong Kwach and her 12 month old daughter, Nyadhabitat, talk with Concern nutritionist, Tracy Dube at the Concern nutrition centre in a refugee camp in Juba, South Sudan. They took shelter here after fighting broke out in July 2016. The centre is currently seeing between 60 and 70 new cases a week. Photo: Kieran McConville/Concern Worldwide.
Nyakong Kwach and her 12 month old daughter, Nyadhabitat, talk with Concern nutritionist, Tracy Dube at the Concern nutrition centre in a refugee camp in Juba, South Sudan. They took shelter here after fighting broke out in July 2016. The centre is currently seeing between 60 and 70 new cases a week. Photo: Kieran McConville/Concern Worldwide.

We have to challenge the insufficient response to the plight of the world’s refugee crisis throughout Africa and the Middle East, within Europe and now the US. Ireland has a key role to play. We must be proactive, amplifying our voice at an international level, while increasing the scope of our own ambition and ensuring that we are living up to the commitments we have already made.

Ireland can and must accelerate its intake of refugees, notably the 4,000 we have committed to accepting from Syria.  We also have a legitimate influence at EU and international levels as a small but principled nation.  In Brussels, our voice has already become ever more important with the demise of UK influence.

We are one of the few countries that has access to the US President at an annual meeting.  We have a moral duty to use that meeting to deliver a strong message on the indispensable standards of decency and humanity. The Taoiseach does not need to be told that this is no time for smiles and shamrocks. He knows this already.

Follow @aidwkr on Twitter

For more updates, follow Dominic MacSorley on Twitter.

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