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Alexander Schinis

Donald Trump's reckless refugee regression

The terrorist threat from Syrian refugees in the United States is hyperbolically over-exaggerated [Getty]

Date of publication: 30 October, 2017

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Comment: Slashing refugee admittance to the United States on the grounds of 'security' is just another blow to President Donald Trump's waning moral authority, writes Alexander Schinis.
A brave new world demands bold new security measures. This premise was at the core of US President Donald Trump's platform during the 2016 elections.

Strangely, though, one of the leading areas Trump has chosen to focus on in the name of "security" has been to enhance the scrutiny of refugees entering the country for resettlement.

It seemed irrelevant to Trump and his allies that the established vetting system was already extraordinarily rigorous. Resettlement outside of a refugee camp depends on a referral from the United Nations, a privilege conferred only to a tiny percent of the most vulnerable refugees worldwide.

In the rare case that the UN refers a candidate for resettlement, the vetting by US officials begins. This includes, in phases, as many as three background checks, appointments for fingerprinting and identity verification, interviews and approval by Homeland Security, and a final security check on arrival in the US.

These are but a few highlights of the gruelling process a refugee must undertake to be resettled in the United States. One might be forgiven for confusing this pre-existing system with what Trump famously refers to as "extreme vetting".

That is one terrorism-planning conviction for every 286,543 refugees that have been admitted. To put that in perspective, about one in every 22,541 Americans committed murder in 2014

Last week, after a freeze on refugee acceptance came to an end, a new period of "extreme vetting" went into effect. An executive order issued by Trump seeks to establish even more extensive "standards and procedures" than those described above in selecting refugees for resettlement.

This comes in tandem with a steep cut in refugee admissions: the Trump administration has set an upper limit of 45,000 refugees for the coming fiscal year, down from a cap of 110,000 set by the previous administration.

Administration officials claim that the cuts reflect the maximum number able to be processed under the new rules. The justification is, as noted, to keep criminally minded individuals out of the United States.

Are there criminals in the world whose goal is to enter the United States with ill intent? Undoubtedly. However, the argument implies that the existing screening protocols were lacking. There is not one iota of evidence to support this. A 2015 report from the Cato Institute framed the matter with some compelling statistics:

Of the 859,629 refugees admitted from 2001 onwards, only three have been convicted of planning terrorist attacks on targets outside of the United States, and none were successfully carried out.

That is one terrorism-planning conviction for every 286,543 refugees that have been admitted. To put that in perspective, about one in every 22,541 Americans committed murder in 2014.



The terrorist threat from Syrian refugees in the United States is hyperbolically over-exaggerated and we have very little to fear from them - precisely because the refugee vetting system is so thorough. 

By the numbers, it is clear that attempting to cast refugees as a significant threat to the wellbeing of the United States holds no water.

Security, though, isn't the only flimsy justification for the new cap. Trump and others are citing the cost of resettlement to keep refugees out in favour of settling them in the region from which they come.

"For the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States, we can assist more than 10 in their home region," Trump said in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September of this year.

"This is the safe, responsible, and humanitarian approach."

The truth is that there is very little that is responsible or humanitarian about keeping refugees out of sight and out of mind. It is no secret that those displaced by war and other catastrophes often suffer in camps under conditions we can only imagine. Extreme lack of resources and opportunity, immobility, and overcrowding define many refugee camps. The oft-repeated argument for assisting refugees "in their own regions" only enables these conditions to exist.

Cutting back on resettlement cases will result in many more men, women, and children languishing indefinitely while waiting for the chance to return to their homes in safety. To subject them to material deprivation in view of the United States' vast material wealth as well as responsibility to the world’s most vulnerable is immoral.

The fact is that the US has played a part in creating the conditions in many nations from which refugees are fleeing

This responsibility stems from the country being a signatory to the 1967 Protocol Relating To The Status Of Refugees. The standards of this responsibility are admittedly subjective. However, a key factor informing how the US should meet its duty of care is its role as the wealthiest nation in the world. Rather than burdening other countries with the cost and numbers of refugees, the US should be increasing its resettlement cases - not slashing them by half.

The United States bears responsibility towards many of the world's refugees for another even more important reason. The fact is that the US has played a part in creating the conditions in many nations from which refugees are fleeing.

Engaging in war, regardless of whether or not that war is "justified", puts civilians at risk. To close off escape routes such as resettlement for civilians places innocent lives in unjustifiable danger. The humane course of action is to give civilians recourse to escape conflict. This includes the option of resettlement.

Arguments that favour curtailing or eliminating refugee resettlement out of concern for "security" serve to falsely frame the discussion. The evidence is clear: refugee resettlement as practiced did not present a security risk of any kind.

We must reject this and any other framing that does not centre around the responsibility of the United States towards refugees.

This bears repetition over and over - now more than ever, especially with Trump administration officials reportedly expressing a desire for a total refugee admission of 0.

Resettling the refugees of the world has long been one way the United States strives to meet, in some small way, its responsibility of global leadership. The steep decrease in the admittance cap is an abrogation of that responsibility. It falls to the American public not to permit this low bar to become a new norm - or even worse, to serve as a stepping stone to an even lower cap.

Alexander Schinis is a freelance writer and analyst. He holds a Master's degree from New York University's Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies.

Follow him on Twitter: @aschinis89

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.


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