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The US is failing in its moral obligation to Syrian refugees

Although the United States has fulfilled President Obama’s pledge of accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year, we should be doing much more.

Syrian refugees inside the border wait to be approved to get into Jordan, January, 2016. Raad Adayleh/Press Association. All rights reserved.The Syrian civil war has been raging for over five years, with no end in sight. As a result, the world is facing the worst refugee crisis since World War II. The Migration Policy Centre estimates that 11 million Syrians have been displaced since March 2011, with 4.8 million having fled to Syria’s immediate neighbors and 1 million requesting asylum in the European Union. Although the United States has fulfilled President Obama’s pledge of accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year, we should be doing much more.

There are three main reasons to support a more progressive policy. First, the US has a humanitarian obligation to reduce suffering and protect human rights. From an ethical standpoint, this is less controversial than it sounds. Just as individually I ought to help others when I can, collectively we ought to assist those in need through the government that acts on our behalf. To be sure, the US also has obligations to its own citizens – more on that shortly – but the burden of proof is on those who would rebut the presumption that it is a good thing to minimize overall harm. Thus we are prima facie bound by the duty of beneficence. And it is clear that the Syrian people desperately need our help. Since the beginning of the war, the UN estimates that about 400,000 people have died. The Assad regime has done most of the damage, killing and intimidating opponents and perceived opponents of the existing government. The UN and Amnesty International have also accused ISIS, which is fighting against Assad, of committing crimes against humanity: killing civilians and prisoners of war, recruiting child soldiers, engaging in sexual slavery, and persecuting ethnic and minority religious groups. With Russia supporting Assad through airstrikes, civilians are caught in the crossfire.

Even Syrians who have successfully escaped the country face hardships elsewhere. Europe and the Middle East are struggling to process the millions of refugees, leading to makeshift camps with little security and substandard shelter, food, and water. For example, cash-strapped Greece has become a gateway for refugees into Europe, and at the current rate, it will take them 20 years to process them all. Meanwhile, refugees live in conditions that the Greek interior minister, Panagiotis Kouroublis, has said are as bad as a Nazi concentration camp, “a modern day Dachau.” By accepting more Syrian refugees, the US could alleviate some of these problems.

The second reason for increased US involvement is that taking in refugees would satisfy an obligation that we have voluntarily accepted as part of our international agreements. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, and Article 14 states that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” The US also signed the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1967, which commits us to protect those who face danger if returned to their home country. Therefore, increasing refugee flows into the US would not only assist those who need it, but would in effect fulfil a promise we have made to the world community.

Finally, by not taking in more refugees the US is failing to alleviate the pressure on countries, including our allies in Europe, which are being politically destabilized. Germany alone has accepted 600,000 migrants, and the European Union as a whole is struggling to handle the mass migration and justly distribute burdens. In the words of Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, “this risks unravelling the European Union as a political construct.” Stability in Europe makes a lasting peace more achievable, which is not only good in itself and good for our allies, but is also in our national interest.

In light of these arguments, the US ought to provide asylum for many more Syrian refugees, unless there are other, more pressing obligations. Only two counterarguments have been given, and neither is compelling. The first concern is that refugee flows may be infiltrated by terrorists. Although this is a potential problem, the risk can be greatly reduced in fact. Countries often set up centers to process asylum-seekers, and there are effective screening processes. We have done this sort of thing at other times, including before, during, and in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when the US allowed about 600,000 immigrants into the country. In addition, we evaluate legal immigrants daily, and we regularly screen people crossing our borders with Canada and Mexico. It is misguided to think that groups of Syrian refugees pose a problem that other refugees and other immigrants, both legal and illegal, do not. Therefore, it is unlikely that admitting more Syrians, properly screened, would substantially increase the threat of terrorism, and certainly not enough to override our other obligations.

A second objection is that a large influx of refugees would adversely affect the US economy, especially the housing and employment markets. This claim is belied by the facts. Studies show that charitable donations received to assist Syrian refugees largely offset the costs to host countries. For example, currently one out of every five people in Lebanon has fled Syria, yet the World Bank predicts that the country’s economy will actually grow at a rate of 3% this year, higher than the previous year. And a recent study by the UN found that Lebanon’s GDP actually grew more than 1% as a result of refugee-aid packages. Furthermore, even if there are resulting economic pressures, the US is better able to absorb the immigrants than smaller countries whose refugee population is already much higher than ours. For example, Turkey, with a population of about 75 million people – less than a quarter the size of the United States – has accepted 2.5 million Syrian refugees. There’s a strong argument to be made that this is an unjust distribution, with less affluent and more vulnerable nations being asked to bear the brunt of the costs.

To fulfil the US commitment to reduce suffering, keep our international agreements, support our allies, and promote justice, we need to open our borders to more Syrian refugees. It is time that we live up to our moral and legal obligations and provide asylum for some of the world’s most vulnerable people. The US has lost its opportunity to lead. We should follow the example of other nations and do what’s right.

About the author

Matthew C. Altman is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy & Religious Studies Department at Central Washington University.


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