The Syrian Refugees: Preventing a Crisis Abroad from Becoming a Crisis at Home

431When people saw the viral heartbreaking image of the drowned body of a young Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach in September, the knee-jerk reaction was to jump to the conclusion that we had an immediate moral obligation to take in refugees from the Syrian civil war.  And without a doubt, the refugee crisis as it is today is one of the most critical humanitarian situations the world has faced in decades.  But the problem is not as simple as a picture of one innocent boy dead, and likewise, the solution is not as simple as an immediate and unconditional opening of the floodgates to all refugees.

A crisis with such broad implications, as one would expect, produces a variety of responses from all across the world.  Some countries have rashly accepted large, unsustainable numbers of refugees, and have thus faced natural consequences.  For instance, German officials predict that by the end of the year, 800,000 Syrian refugees will be settled within Germany’s borders.  Chancellor Angela Merkel, with her open-door policy for refugees, has suggested that Germany has room for 1.5 million more refugees.  Certainly, her generosity has had a noticeable impact on mitigating the international refugee crisis.  But domestically, refugee resettlement in Germany has caused a logistical nightmare, earning her pointed criticism and her lowest approval rating in four years.[1]  Greece, a country of 12 million, has been similarly inundated with 300,000 refugees, many of whom have travelled by raft across the Mediterranean to the Greek islands. Syria’s neighbors of Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon have willingly taken in more than a million apiece, putting a considerable strain on their infrastructures, while some of the wealthiest countries in the Middle East, including United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, despite being a stone’s throw away from Syria, have not accepted any refugees.

Currently, the United States is offering places to 70,000 refugees next year, 85,000 in 2016, and up to 100,000 in 2017.  If the pandemonium in Germany, Greece, and the Middle East is any indication, then the strides that the United States will have to take to fulfill these promises will already be immense.  This includes the cost of processing the paperwork of the refugees, the cost of transporting the refugees thousands of miles to the United States, and finally the cost of all basic necessities once the refugees arrive in the United States.  Many of the refugees are poverty-stricken and lack education or practical skills due to years of instability and government dysfunction in Syria.  The price tag on just the transport will certainly be noticeable, but the major costs will be the continued cost of providing necessities once the refugees are resettled.  In most cases, local governments will foot the bill for these costs, which can end up being burdensome on the local taxpayers and crippling for local infrastructure.

And this does not take into account the cost of all necessary security screenings of the refugees that the United States will have to undertake.  Many Syrians harbor a deep mistrust and resentment towards America’s values, culture, past interventions in the Middle East, and diplomatic support for Israel.  This is a glaring difference from the attitudes of immigrants who arrived in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century and after World War II, who saw the United States as a sanctuary for freedom, hoping to establish a home in America and to integrate into American society.  And there is the added problem that members of ISIS and other radical Islamic terrorist groups may pose as refugees and attempt to sneak into the United States in disguise, allowing them to gain a direct foothold in the country.  Because of these dangers, American qualms towards settling people without comprehensive identification and documentation are far from ungrounded or irrational.  Curtailing admission of dangerous criminals into the country will be expensive and difficult, but still may not be effective enough to catch all the red flags[2].

In order to arrive at an appropriate solution and prevent the reoccurrence of past shortcomings in the system, it is useful to observe past refugee crises such as the influx of Somalia refugees in the late 1990s. Although the distribution of the Somali refugees was a national problem, the town of Lewiston, Maine, in particular found itself at the forefront of the controversy.

Lewiston was a small, quiet town home to a vibrant logging industry and Bates College.  But this all changed when Somali refugees, who had initially been settled in poor areas of Georgia, heard of the good schools, cheap housing, and low crime in Lewiston.  This news triggered a secondary refugee migration to Lewiston.  The town was powerless to stop or even regulate this immediate influx of more than one thousand Somali refugees, and its infrastructure was severely weakened as a result.  Nearly all of the refugees needed food stamps and public housing, and the local schools immediately faced the strain of providing English as a second language teachers and interpreters for parent-teacher conferences. Before the refugees arrived, the school district employed only one English as a second language teacher. By 2002, this number had soared to fifteen. Due to the strain on the town’s social services programs, the mayor wrote an open letter to the Somali community, imploring them to stop bringing their friends and family to Lewiston, citing the fact that the city was “maxed out financially, physically, and emotionally.”  This letter created an instant outcry from the Somali community and an anti-immigrant backlash from other sides of the community.

Six thousand refugees and a more than doubled welfare budget later, tensions resurfaced in Lewiston in 2012.  A new mayor, Robert MacDonald, said in an interview that Somalis should “accept our culture and leave [their] culture at the door.”  In a column a few days later where he explained his position, he noted that ethnic violence between Somali refugees and Bantu refugees had broken out on several occasions. Once again, Lewiston was in national news, and calls were made for MacDonald to resign.

But the situation in Lewiston could be repeated on a larger scale across more towns in the country from the Syrian crisis if careful precautions are not taken.  The settlement of refugees in larger cities which are better prepared to cope with influxes in population is a possibility, but there is nothing to prevent the movement of refugees once they arrive in the country.  Lewiston was never an intended destination for the Somali refugees, but once a few began moving there, the town became a magnet.  So while the United States is on track to admit only 70,000 refugees this year, which does not sound like an exorbitant number given that the US population is 320 million, the refugees will not be evenly dispersed around the country. The example of Lewiston shows that even a seemingly small number of refugees clustered in one town can be crippling to the town’s social programs.

From another angle, after miscalculated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many liberals in the United States want to have nothing to do with another war in the Middle East.  When Senator Patty Murray voted against the authorization of force in Iraq in 2002, she quoted economist Thomas Friedman, who once said, “If you break it, you buy it.”  With this, she implied that if the US took military action in Iraq and significantly altered the country, then the US would be responsible for cleaning up any mess or instability left behind.  This “cleaning up” could take the form of sheltering refugees who were affected by military action.

But if the “break it, buy it” mentality is the only situation that implies a duty to “clean up”, this actually reduces America’s responsibility in the current situation.  Of all the conflicts in the Middle East, the Syrian Civil War is perhaps the one that the United States is least responsible for. Suggesting that taxpayer dollars be spent cleaning up a mess that was the result of the Arab Spring rather than Western intervention is foolish if one also posits that the United States should refrain from decisive action against the forces of Bashar al-Assad. This would relegate the United States to watching the conflict from the sidelines, unable to influence the outcome until it is time to “clean up.” It would be more beneficial in the long term if the United States used the resources it would allocate to refugees to work toward a permanent solution in Syria that could end the conflict for once and for all.   As always, to solve any problem, one must identify and solve the root cause before looking to solve secondary effects. In sum, accepting the refugees without also eliminating the causes of Syria’s humanitarian crisis is an unsustainable solution.

A possible libertarian solution would be to allow the refugees into the country and to give them nothing. They would be ineligible for welfare and social services and be wholly reliant on private charity and their own labor. However, this would be infeasible in practice. Even if public opinion would support such a plan, numerous state and national welfare laws would have to be rewritten.

Will the United States turn a completely blind eye to the plight of the Syrians and take in the same number of refugees as the oil-rich Persian Gulf states?  No.  And no matter who the next president is, refugees who are already here will not be sent back to Syria. But acting in the best interest of the American citizens and taxpayers, and even in the best interest of arriving at a solution to solve the long-term problem, the response of cranking the floodgates wide open is not the appropriate or sustainable answer.

Joseph Carlstein is a sophomore from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and is tentatively majoring in the Mathematics Department. He can be reached at jc44@princeton.edu.

[1] http://www.ibtimes.com/syria-refugee-crisis-germany-expect-15m-asylum-seekers-2015-merkels-support-suffers-2126675

[2] http://thehill.com/policy/national-security/256399-gaps-persist-for-screening-syrian-refugees-officials-say

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