The Syrian refugee crisis and the decisions we must make: Put the citizens first

Graphic: Mason Young-Shor

Graphic: Mason Young-Shor

Supporters of humanitarian efforts often overlook the realities of the duty of governments. While a government’s duty to its own citizens is a moral one, humanitarian aid should be pragmatic in nature. The moral obligation of states to help non-citizens cannot and should not be acted on if that need endangers the livelihood of the citizens. Any actions opposing the governmental obligation to citizen safety defeat the central purpose of the state and should not be permitted. When the humanitarian action of accepting refugees negatively affects existing citizens, the state is obligated to deny asylum. For this reason, the only justifiable action of foreign policy decision-making is to fully evaluate the impacts on citizens of accepting refugees into a country.

Offering asylum for refugees leaves both the host and regional countries in danger of increased terrorist activity. Even upon entry into a host country, refugees represent a national security threat, as they are frequently all but unidentifiable. For example, in 2012, the Yemeni government was forced to tighten its asylum policies because it discovered a number of refugees staying in the country were actually members of the Al Shabab terrorist group and had entered under false identities. Moreover, Daniel Milton of Arkansas State University explains that because resettlement programs are tight on money, they often contribute to the “radicalization of refugees” because of the tenuous conditions and “how poorly host states treat refugees.” Social isolation and economic hardship cause refugees to resent the host country, leading them to potentially take radical terrorist action. Milton thereby concludes in his analysis of 15 million refugees and their host nations that when refugee flow increases from the 25th to the 75th percentile, the expected count of transnational terrorist attacks in the host country also increases by 91 percent. This trend is historically confirmed, as a radicalized Tutsi, a population native to Eastern Rwanda and Burundi and amongst the 45,000 Rwandan refugees residing in Burundi during the year 1963, assassinated the Hutu Burundi Prime Minister.

Host nations also risk undermining their regional stability by accepting citizens from failed states. Historically, refugees have disturbed regional peace in three ways. First, their entry into a country creates cyclical conflict. Nations offering asylum follow up by engaging in political discourse with the refugees’ homeland areas and their governments. In an effort to stem refugee flows, host nations demand policy changes that anger countries of origin, which often turns hostile, causing disputes and eventually, full-blown conflicts. For example, the U.S. invasion of Haiti in 1994 was to prevent further refugee migration. As a result, refugee flows are both caused by and cause conflict, creating a cycle of displacement. Likewise, high influxes of refugees overburden state facilities. Imagine thousands of migrants suddenly entering Princeton. This rapid expansion of population would overburden resources and undermine the structural integrity of the area, leaving it open to conflict and power struggles. Moreover, refugees compete for resources with host members of the country, causing internal dispute and resentment. The effects of these issues are compounded, as Idean Salehyan of the University of North Texas finds that for every “20,000 refugees” flowing “into a country each year,” the odds of an internal dispute and failure of state increase by 85 percent. This is of immense relevance, as James Piazza of UNC explains that “failed states are 15 times more likely” to suffer from or be the source of a terrorist attack, and those close to failing are ten times more likely to be the source of such attacks.

Ultimately, it is important to separate the emotional response evoked by images of suffering and strife from the logic that must accompany national policy. When deciding which actions to take in the face of overwhelming adversities, states should first recall that their chief duty is to the citizens. Any action that endangers the livelihood of the citizens must be rejected on face—the safety of citizens always comes first. Since the acceptance of refugees is associated with a reduction in benefit spending for citizens, an increase in transnational terrorism and an increase in the hazard of state failure, the massive acceptance of refugees must be denied. Responding to the Syrian crisis, governments should continue to pursue long-term political solutions while prioritizing their own citizens.

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