Why We Can’t Turn Our Backs On Refugees

There is little to be gained from contemplating last week’s senseless attacks in Paris. Compared to the attacks on the World Trade Centre and on Charlie Hebdo, these were more evil still. They did not target an economic system; they were not a reprisal for a supposed affront. The victims of these callous and cowardly acts of violence were ordinary Parisians spending their Friday night at the bar, at the football and at a concert – ordinary Parisians who could not be more remote from IS’s cultural wasteland.

In response to these brutish, indiscriminate murders, the West paid tribute to those who were killed and to the nation that has no choice but to carry on living. As the lights of the Eiffel Tower were dimmed, landmarks the world over lit up in defiance in the colours of the tricolore. On Tuesday, 70,000 supporters clad in blue, white and red turned the home of football into a pantheon of the dead and belted out a rendition of the Marseillaise so impassioned it brought some visiting fans to tears.

Wembley Stadium lit in the colours of the French flag. (Photo by Ben Sutherland / CC BY 2.0)
Wembley Stadium lit in the colours of the French flag. (Photo by Ben Sutherland / CC BY 2.0)

Not all reactions to the attacks have been so respectful, however. The Stop the War Coalition and WikiLeaks both reprehensively published tweets in the immediate aftermath which imputed responsibility to the West. Yet more troubling were the reactions of a number of leading US politicians seeking the nomination of the Republican Party and ultimately the country’s presidency.

No one is surprised any more by the unfathomable stupidity of Donald Trump’s policy prescriptions, even when they come closer to channelling 1930s Germany than 21st century America. Similarly, Ben Carson’s comparison of Syrian refugees to “rabid dogs” was just the latest in a catalogue of offensive comments. What is disappointing is that supposedly sensible candidates such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, rather than fighting prejudice against Syrians and Muslims, have been entertaining it. Mr Bush suggested that only orphans and Christians should be given sanctuary; Mr Rubio, who had previously tentatively voiced support for receiving Syrian refugees, said that the country should take none at all. Thirty-one state governors have so far refused to receive refugees from Syria. Such reactions were shown up as particularly heartless and cowardly by Francois Hollande’s renewal of his pledge that France would take 30,000 refugees over the next two years.

Donald Trump is among the Republican Presidential candidates who have called for an immediate halt on allowing Syrian refugees to claim asylum in the US. (Photo by Peter Stevens / CC BY 2.0)
Donald Trump is among the Republican Presidential candidates who have called for an immediate halt on allowing Syrian refugees to claim asylum in the US. (Photo by Peter Stevens / CC BY 2.0)

The reluctance to welcome refugees stems from the fear that the serpentine streams they make when crossing the continent provide perfect cover for jihadists to cross borders, too. They point to the fake Syrian passport, used to re-enter the Schengen area, that was found near the body of one of the attackers. In fact, this probably has little significance: Germany’s interior minister suggested that it was more likely planted to create a “false trail”. In any case, to turn away all refugees out of fear would be unjust. What is more, of the other known attackers, all were EU citizens. IS is perfectly capable of carrying out attacks without resorting to infiltrating trains of refugees.

In the wake of the Paris atrocities, demands for tighter border security are natural. But it would be misguided to think that turning away refugees is the best way to stiffen that security. In Europe, re-imposing border controls is a necessary short-term solution. It may turn out to be the long-term solution too, but as The Guardian and The Economist have both argued this week, better policing of Schengen’s external borders and co-operation between security services within the free travel area would be just as effective and would not reek of capitulation to IS’s attempts to sow fear and provoke division. The US ought to be safer anyway: to its advantage it has geography and an already-stringent screening process for refugees. It would best protect its citizens by using its military strength to eradicate IS rather than by making that process more stringent still.

Refugees, however, are the misguided target both of public ire and of security policy. They are the desperate people trying to escape from the destruction wreaked by the caliphate. Turning our backs on them is exactly what IS wants us to do. The solidarity shown to the victims of the Paris attacks and to the French people has been inspiring. Let’s at least show a bit of that solidarity to IS’s Syrian victims, too.

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