The Refugees & the New War

Egyptians attending a vigil at the Giza pyramids, near Cairo, for the victims of the recent attacks—claimed by ISIS—on Paris, Beirut, and the Russian passenger jet that exploded over the Sinai Peninsula, November 15, 2015
Cui Xinyu/Xinhua/Corbis
Egyptians attending a vigil at the Giza pyramids, near Cairo, for the victims of the recent attacks—claimed by ISIS—on Paris, Beirut, and the Russian passenger jet that exploded over the Sinai Peninsula, November 15, 2015

1.

Strategists will tell you that it is a mistake to fight the battle your enemies want you to fight. You should impose your strategy on them, not let them impose theirs on you. These lessons apply to the struggle with the leaders of ISIS. We have applied pressure upon them in Syria; they have replied with atrocious attacks in Ankara, Beirut, and now Paris. They are trying to provoke an apocalyptic confrontation with the Crusader infidels. We should deny them this opportunity.

ISIS wants to convince the world of the West’s indifference to the suffering of Muslims; so we should demonstrate the opposite. ISIS wants to drag Syria ever further into the inferno; so ending the Syrian war should become the first priority of the Obama administration’s final year in office. Already Secretary of State John Kerry has brought together the Russians, Iranians, and Saudis to develop the outlines of a transition in Syria. Sooner rather than later, no matter how difficult this may prove, the meetings in Vienna will have to include representatives of the Syrian regime and non-ISIS Syrian fighters. The goal would be to establish a cease-fire between the regime and its opponents, so that the fight against ISIS can be waged to a conclusion and displaced Syrians can return home. Destroying the ISIS project to establish a caliphate will not put an end to jihadi nihilism, but it will decisively erode ISIS’s ideological allure.

A successful campaign against nihilism will have to resist nihilism itself. If, as Gilles Kepel, a French specialist on Islam, has argued, ISIS is trying to provoke civil war in France, then the French state must not deploy tactics that will lose it the loyalty of its most vulnerable and susceptible citizens.1 Detention without trial, mass deportations, harsh physical interrogations, sealing borders, ending free circulation of people in Europe: all these tactics—proposed by the right-wing demagogue Marine Le Pen—will tempt French and other European authorities, but they are disastrous as a strategy. A successful campaign against Islamic extremism should deepen, not undermine, allegiance toward liberté, égalité, fraternité, especially among Muslim citizens.

ISIS strategy also seeks to make Europeans think of refugees as potential security threats rather than the victims that they are. It is of some importance that ISIS not succeed in its aim of spreading strategic disinformation. It has had some success. Before the Paris attacks, the Swedish government reinstated border controls. After the attacks, the Polish government announced that it wouldn’t accept the nine thousand refugees the EU had allocated to Poland for resettlement. A Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the suicide bombers at the Stade de France, and this discovery pointed a finger of suspicion at other refugees. If ISIS planted the passport, it had reason to do so.2 It does not want Europe to give a home to anyone fleeing its caliphate.

So far, more than a few European leaders have seen through the ISIS campaign of strategic disinformation. The head of the European Commission and the speaker of the European Parliament have declared that Europe must not allow ISIS to dictate the terms of its refugee policy. American state governors and Republican candidates for president, on the other hand, have been calling for a ban on Syrian refugees in the US. This is fear masquerading as prudence. Canada, Australia, and Britain, countries that have been attacked by terrorists, have not backed away from their commitment to take Syrian refugees, and the US shouldn’t either. To bar refugees from US borders would allow the enemy to dictate the terms of the battle. The US has every reason—moral, humanitarian, and strategic—to refuse to give in to fear and to continue to provide refuge for those escaping barbarism.

2.

The Paris attacks make it easy to forget a scandalous fact: 3,329 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe so far this year. Still more are drowning every week. They are drowning in sight of the island of Lesbos in Greece or off the Italian island of Lampedusa. Others are dying trapped inside refrigerator trucks on the roadside in Austria; they are dying inside the Channel Tunnel, trying to reach Great Britain; as the winter darkens, some may die of exposure on the trek up through the Balkans. Later generations will ask how European leaders let this happen.

Hannah Arendt, exiled in 1933, stripped of her German citizenship in 1937, later taking flight from Vichy France and finally reaching New York in 1941, also wondered how Europe had betrayed the stateless in her own time. In 1948, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, she observed that it was citizenship that gives human beings the “right to have rights.” As for stateless persons, she concluded, they ought to have rights simply because they are human, but her own experience had taught her a different lesson:

If a human being loses his political status, he should, according to the implications of the inborn and inalienable rights of man, come under exactly the situation for which the declarations of such general rights provided. Actually the opposite is the case. It seems that a man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man.3

The passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the Refugee Convention in 1951, and the European Convention on Human Rights in 1953 was supposed to give the stateless the right to have rights. States who signed these documents were not allowed to let stateless people drown in their waters and were not supposed to send them back home if they were likely to be tortured; they were entitled to a hearing to make their claim to stay. Anyone, in the words of the Refugee Convention, who fled a “well-founded fear of being persecuted” had a right to claim refuge in any country that ratified the convention. Thanks to the human rights revolution after 1945, Europe thought it had proven Arendt wrong. Now that we have seen a dead toddler face down, washed up on the gravel of a Turkish beach, Arendt may have been right after all.

The Refugee Convention of 1951 has been overwhelmed by the reality of 2015. The 11 million people who have fled Syria are not, for the most part, fleeing literally from the Refugee Convention’s “well-founded fear of being persecuted.” They are fleeing violent death: from Assad’s barrel bombs, Russian and American air strikes, ISIS beheadings, militia murders and persecution. The UN authorized a new doctrine in 2005—the responsibility to protect (R2P)—that mandates state intervention when a tyrant like Assad makes war on his own citizens, but R2P is a dead letter in Syria.

A safe zone on the Turkish border, protected by air cover and ground troops, could have sheltered displaced populations, but nobody except the Kurds provided the necessary troops for doing this; so protecting the displaced inside Syria has ceased to be a workable option. As for a cease-fire that would allow civilian populations to return to government-held and rebel-held territory, this remains a cruel mirage. Resettlement elsewhere is the only practical policy for the foreseeable future.

When the drowned child on the Turkish beach appeared on American television screens in September, seventy-two House Democrats, fourteen Democratic senators, and a few Republicans aligned with the USA Refugee Council and other American resettlement agencies to urge the president to take in Syrian refugees. His response—raising the Syrian refugee quota to 10,000, then 15,000—satisfied no one. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has identified 130,000 Syrian refugees in camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan who need permanent refuge in other countries because they are uniquely vulnerable—orphans, for example, or badly injured victims of torture or recent attack—and the UNHCR has asked the US to take half of them, in other words, 65,000 people. The administration replies that it will take eighteen to twenty-four months to process anyone; everyone must be vetted at least twice so no terrorist sleeper cells slip through; and besides, America has already done enough: it contributes the lion’s share—$450 million—to the UNHCR’s funding needs in Syria.

Before the Paris attacks, polls said Americans were in favor of helping refugees. In the wake of the attacks, it is safe to assume that this is no longer the case. Taking its cue from the public, the Obama administration is likely to keep on treating Europe’s refugee crisis as if it were chiefly Angela Merkel’s responsibility.

This is a political error as well as a moral mistake. If it fails to offer Chancellor Merkel tangible support by taking in refugees itself, the United States weakens Merkel domestically and hastens her downfall. By taking so few Syrian refugees—the US has admitted only 1,854 since 2012—while its European allies flounder in the face of the flood of humanity, the US is strengthening the anti-American, anti-immigration populist right wing across the Continent. If US inaction hastens the arrival to power in France of reactionary anti-American demagogues like Marine Le Pen, the Obama administration will share some of the blame. US solidarity with Europe always matters but it matters especially now that Russia is challenging Europe’s eastern borders. By failing to assist Europe, the president allows Eastern European leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to drift ever closer to the Russian orbit and to disseminate Vladimir Putin’s repulsive fiction of a Christian Europe beset by Muslim hordes.

Refugees and migrants waiting to cross the border from Greece to Macedonia, October 2015
Mashid Mohadjerin/Redux
Refugees and migrants waiting to cross the border from Greece to Macedonia, October 2015

Americans may still feel the refugee crisis is none of their business, but Europeans increasingly feel otherwise—and so do the refugees. The human flight from Syria is a mass plebiscite on the failure of US and Western policy in the Levant. Syrians have reached the conclusion that the US–Saudi–Gulf State proxy war to upend Assad has failed; that their country will burn down to the waterline before Assad ever leaves; that peace will not return before their children are grown up; and that even if peace does come there will be nothing to return to in Homs, Kobanî, or Aleppo.

Syrians are now leaving refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon where the World Food Program e-card ration is down to 50 cents a day, and where the UNHCR Syria appeal is 50 percent underfunded; their cell phones told them instantly in late August that Germany was waiving visa requirements and so they are heading for the north. It is not madness but political despair that leads mothers and fathers to risk the drowning of their children in a bid for safety and a new life.

They are flooding into a Germany torn between wanting to demonstrate, in the warmth of its welcome, that it has overcome its tormented past, and wondering how to cope with the unstoppable flow. The US cannot afford to let the gap with Germany widen still further. Germans have good reason to believe that while they are bearing the consequences of the collapse of Syria, it is America that bears responsibility for its causes. Even former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has admitted that the rise of ISIS and the disintegration of Syria figure among the catastrophic consequences of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.4

Chancellor Merkel cannot have anticipated what she brought upon herself by opening Germany’s borders, and she must have been astonished by the speed with which hope travels along the migration path by cell phone. When a Time magazine photographer asked refugees to show him their most precious possession, many showed him their cell phone. Now that migrant and refugee chains are technologically empowered, the flood, often guided by professional smugglers, will find a way around every new barrier put in its path.

In the processing centers the Germans have set up in disused army barracks (I visited one north of Munich in late October) exhausted public employees and volunteers are trying to separate out bona fide refugees—most of the Syrians by and large—from migrants from less tormented places. Kosovars, Albanians, Serbs, Macedonians, and Montenegrins will be sent back, but so also will Pakistanis, Afghans, Somalis, Eritreans, even Libyans.

Merkel risks losing power if she cannot show that she has her borders under control. She has refused, thus far, to seal her frontiers with razor wire, and she has refused, crucially, to put an upper ceiling on the number of refugee claims that Germany will process. Both decisions are admirable, but her political survival depends on swift but lawful repatriation to safe third countries of those who fail to qualify. In other countries too, the political legitimacy of refugee resettlement depends on adjudicated repatriation of economic migrants. Yet case-by-case decisions about who is a migrant and who is a refugee are bound to be arbitrary. Afghans, Libyans, and Somalis will also claim they are fleeing violent death and it may prove impossible to send them back.

The Refugee Convention regime of 1951 is no longer adequate, since, as has been said, most refugees are not fleeing a well-founded fear of being persecuted, as the convention calls it, but a well-founded fear of violent death in states torn apart by civil war or terrorized by tyrants. The world badly needs a new migratory regime—based around an internationally authorized biometric ID card, with a date of permitted entry and a mandatory exit—that legalizes migratory flows from south to north, so that southern countries benefit from the remittances sent home and northern ones benefit from the labor and ingenuity their aging populations need.

The flood of peoples—the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates there are 60 million displaced in the world, up from 40 million in 2000—lays bare a new reality. In the cold war order of tyranny, closed borders and limited communications combined to keep victims of human rights abuse locked up in the same country with their oppressors. Now, in the age of open borders and free exit, people are flowing out, and with them, the saving distance that kept zones of danger apart from zones of safety has collapsed. Nations in the north that fail to invest in the stability of their neighbors in the south can expect to see the people of the south—and terrorists too—on their doorsteps.

The Europeans have just announced additional billions of aid to African states to strengthen their border controls, improve their human rights, and fortify their institutions. Development assistance now has a powerful new motive: migration control. This motive ought to be shaping US policy in the migration-sending countries near its borders: Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. So far the US has done little to address the causes—state failure, gang violence, and a stratospheric murder rate—that produce the ongoing surge of child migrants from these countries.

Instead of stabilizing failing societies before desperate refugees start arriving, the US reaction has been to make it harder for refugees to get in. The US accepts large numbers of immigrants as permanent residents (about a million a year) while throttling back the number of refugees. The admissions of refugees plummeted after September 11 and are only now recovering to about 70,000 annually. After the Paris attacks, security concerns may result in cutting back US refugee admissions still further, even when the facts suggest that the security concerns are manageable. According to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, since September 11 the US has taken in 784,000 refugees and of these only three have been arrested subsequently on terrorism-related charges.5

Fear makes for bad strategy. A better policy starts by remembering a better America. In January 1957, none other than Elvis Presley sang a gospel tune called “There Will Be Peace in the Valley” on The Ed Sullivan Show to encourage Americans to welcome and donate to Hungarian refugees. After the 1975 collapse of South Vietnam, President Ford ordered an interagency task force to resettle 130,000 Vietnamese refugees; and later Jimmy Carter found room in America for Vietnamese boat people. In 1999, in a single month, the US processed four thousand Kosovar refugees through Fort Dix, New Jersey.

These examples show what can be done if the president authorizes rapid refugee clearance in US military installations, and if the US were to process and repatriate refugees directly from the frontline states of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. As Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative has been urging since September, direct processing in the camps themselves will cut down on deaths by drowning in the Mediterranean. If Europe and the United States show them a safe way out, refugees won’t take their chances by paying smugglers using rubber dinghies.6

The Obama administration should say yes to the UNHCR appeal to settle 65,000 refugees on an expedited basis. Refugee agencies across the United States—as well as religious communities from all faiths—have said they will take the lead in resettlement and integration. If the Liberal government in Canada can take in 25,000 refugees directly from Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, and process their security clearance at Canadian army bases, the US can do the same with 65,000.

Taking 65,000 people will only relieve a small portion of a refugee flow of 4.1 million, but it is an essential political gesture designed to encourage other allies—Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina—and other immigrant countries to do their part. The strategic goal is to relieve the pressure on the three frontline states. Refugee resettlement by the US also acknowledges a fact that the refugees themselves are trying to tell us: even if peace eventually comes to their tormented country, there will be no life for all of them back home.

Once the US stops behaving like a bemused bystander, watching a neighbor trying to put out a fire, it can then put pressure on allies and adversaries to make up the shortfall in funding for refugee programs run by the UNHCR and the World Food Program. One of the drivers of the exodus this summer was a sudden reduction in refugee food aid caused by shortfalls in funding. Even now these agencies remain short of what they need to provide shelter and food to the people flooding out of Syria.

Now that ISIS has brought down a Russian aircraft over Sinai and bombed civilians in Paris, Beirut, and Ankara, the US needs to use its refugee policy to help stabilize its allies in the region. The presumption that it can sit out the refugee crisis makes a hugely unwise bet on the stability of Jordan, where refugees amount to 25 percent of the total population; and Lebanon, where largely Sunni refugees, who have hardly any camps, are already destabilizing the agonizingly fragile multiconfessional order; and Turkey, where the burdens of coping with nearly two million refugees are driving the increasingly authoritarian Erdoğan regime into the arms of Vladimir Putin.

It’s time for the US to call the bluff of China and Russia, its fellow members of the Security Council, and remind them that if they want to be taken seriously as global leaders, they should pay their dues. The Chinese have done little or nothing for refugee relief in the Middle East, and the Russians are energetically creating more refugees with their bombing campaign while contributing a paltry $300,000 to the UNHCR Syria appeal. As for the Saudis, the richest state in the region, they have contributed less than $3 million.

A US strategy should start from the understanding that the refugees present a national security challenge as much as a humanitarian crisis and that helping Europe deal with them is critical to the battle against jihadi nihilism. If Europe closes its borders, if the frontline states can no longer cope, the US and the West will face millions of stateless people who will never forget that they were denied the right to have rights. In a battle against extremism, giving hope to desperate people is not charity: it is simple prudence. These national interests demand that a cease-fire in Syria become as important for the administration as the Iran deal.

There is no higher priority for the last year of Obama’s presidency. Taking in 65,000 refugees supports the most generous of the Europeans—Germany and Sweden—and helps them shame the worst. Giving assistance to the frontline states—Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey—with their refugee burden helps to preserve what stability remains in the region and rebuts the presumption that the US has abandoned them. In a war against jihadi nihilism, in a world of collapsing states and civil war, a refugee policy that refuses to capitulate to fear belongs at the center of any American and European strategy.

—November 18, 2015

  1. 1

    Gilles Kepel, “L’État islamique cherche à déclencher une guerre civile,” Le Monde, November 14, 2015. 

  2. 2

    Patrick Kingsley, “Why Syrian Refugee Passport Found at Paris Attack Scene Must Be Treated with Caution,” The Guardian, November 15, 2015. 

  3. 3

    Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, 1968), p. 300. 

  4. 4

    Jethro Mullen, “Tony Blair Says He’s Sorry for Iraq War ‘Mistakes,’ But Not for Ousting Saddam,” CNN.com, October 26, 2015. 

  5. 5

    Kathleen Newland, “The US Record Shows Refugees Are Not a Threat,” Migration Policy Institute, October 2015.  

  6. 6

    “Why People Don’t Need to Drown in the Aegean—ESI Policy Proposal Summary,” European Security Initiative, September 17, 2015.