Why Resettle Any Syrian Refugees at All?

The International Rescue Committee, a refugee advocacy group headed by former U.K. foreign secretary David Miliband, has urged the United States to resettle 65,000 refugees from Syria by the end of next year. The head of the State Department bureau in charge of carrying out the U.N.'s instructions on refugees (the U.N. decides who gets to move to the U.S.) said last week, in the AP's words, "that between 1,000 and 2,000 Syrian refugees will be brought to the U.S. by the end of September and several thousand more in 2016." Miliband welcomed this but said "it certainly needs to improve."

The more important question is, why are we resettling any Middle Eastern refugees at all? Since January 2013, State Department numbers show that as of last week we've resettled here in the U.S. only 697 Syrian refugees, more than 90 percent of them Muslims. The FBI admitted at a congressional hearing in February that it lacked the capacity to do meaningful background checks on such refugees. That's why we have headlines like "US May Have Let 'Dozens' of Terrorists Into Country As Refugees".

But putting the security threat aside, why would we take any Arab refugees from any war-torn country in the Middle East? Resettlement in a faraway country should be the absolute last resort; it's preferable that displaced people be accommodated in countries near their homeland, facilitating eventual return, and in countries that are culturally similar to ease the strains for both the refugees and the host country.

In that vein, why aren't we demanding that Saudi Arabia resettle the Syrians? (And, for that matter, the Yemenis likely to be displaced by the fighting there.) It's a huge, empty country – much of it desert, certainly, but it supports 27 million people with a per capita GDP of more than $31,000. The United Arab Emirates is smaller, but it is also awash in oil wealth and could take a significant number. And the overflow of Syrian and Yemeni refugees that aren't resettled in Saudi Arabia or the UAE could be settled, with Gulf money, in other huge, empty Arab countries, like Algeria and Sudan. The 22 member states of the Arab League cover 5 million square miles — surely somewhere in there they can find space for displaced Syrians.

(The one group you could argue should be an exception is Syrian Christians, but we've only taken in 40 of them since January 2013, some 5 percent of the total, and there's no reason to believe that would change much in the future. When it came out that Canada wanted to prioritize religious minorities for resettlement, the usual suspects raised the usual cries, though the government seems to have stuck to its guns.)

The Saudis et al. will balk at the suggestion, but it's their responsibility to take care of their own brethren and neighbors. We can certainly help with transportation to, say, Algeria, but we have no obligation whatever to let super-rich neighboring Arab countries off the hook.

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