Syrian refugees wait for mattresses, blankets and other supplies before being assigned to tents at the Zaatari Syrian refugees camp in Mafraq, near the Syrian border with Jordan. (AP)
Are Syrian refugees a threat to the security of the United States? In the wake of the deadly San Bernardino shootings, most Americans are on edge and many are reluctant to let in any more Muslims, especially Syrian refugees. Republican presidential candidates have picked up on this fear and the rhetoric is flying—Ben Carson compared them to “rabid dogs,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie refuses to accept any “orphans under the age of 5,” and Presidential front-runner Donald Trump recently declared his plan to ban all Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. Both Carson and Trump even claim to have seen Muslims celebrating the fall of the World Trade Center on 9/11.
But the paranoia doesn’t stop there—more than half of state governors across the U.S. vowed not to take in any Syrian refugees. And last month, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to ban all Syrian (and Iraqi) refugees from entering the U.S. until more secure screening measures can be implemented.
Of course in the months leading up to the presidential elections, candidates are prone to making simplistic one-liners to cater to their constituency and advance their ratings in the polls. In reality, the problem of refugees for any country is quite complex—are the refugees fleeing political persecution or pursuing greater economic opportunity? How do we go about determining their motives and effectively screening claimants? Once refugees flee political persecution and land in a “safe” country, if they choose to forgo low-paying jobs in this safe country and immigrate to another country with better-paying jobs, are they then reclassified as economic immigrants? If we accept some from one religion, are we discriminating against other religions?
Since the November 12–13 attacks in Beirut and Paris, debate over immigration policy in many countries has intensified. In the U.S., the Obama administration revealed a plan to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. Australia has agreed to take in 12,000 Syrian refugees after careful screening, a process authorities say could take up to a year. In Canada, authorities are busy screening around 100 people per day to reach an ambitious target of 25,000 by the end of year.
In Europe, Germany is struggling to deal with 180,000 refugees who have entered the country since the beginning of November. Each of these countries is toiling with the question of which refugees to accept—mothers and their children, the elderly, or young single males? Will Muslims, Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Druze, Bahá’ís, or Zoroastrians be accepted and in what numbers?
Since the brutal crackdown of a popular uprising in Syria by President Bashar al-Assad, the U.S. has accepted around 1,900 Syrians flown in by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Out of the 1,900 Syrian refugees living in the U.S., the vast majority are Sunni Muslim, with only 53 Syrian Christians, one Yazidi, and a handful of Druze, Bahá’ís and Zoroastrians.
This disparity is due in part to the way in which the refugees are selected, according to Nina Shea, director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and a former commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. In a recent article for the National Review, Shea argues that the Syrian Christians in refugee camps face a wide range of discrimination and danger, including kidnapping and death. The U.S. relies upon the UNHCR for the vetting of refugees, and the UNHCR largely selects refugees for relocation and settlement from the rolls of the refugee camps. Most of the Syrian Christians have fled the refugee camps in fear, many traversing to Lebanon.
The process by which refugees are vetted by the U.S. needs to change to target those also outside of refugee camps, in order to allow the vetting of more persecuted religious minorities from Syria. U.S. presidential candidates, all of whom profess a strong belief in Christ and the teachings of Christianity, should have no hesitancy in accepting fellow Christians from Syria—those “rabid dogs” and orphans who have been persecuted halfway around the world.
American Christians should also welcome with open arms Syrian Christians and help them with the daunting task of resettling and adjusting to life in the U.S. Before the war, Christians in Syria numbered over 2 million and there were around 80,000 Yazidis, both groups having been subjected to abduction, sexual enslavement, forcible conversion to Islam, or beheading. Is it unrealistic to assume 10,000 acceptable refugees from these populations can be found and relocated?
Given the inflammatory rhetoric of American presidential candidates, the cautious posturing of U.S. lawmakers, and the paranoia of a fearful American population, the unfortunate truth is that choosing 10,000 Christians for immediate vetting may be the only way to quickly accept and settle any Syrian refugees in the coming months. Canada, citing security concerns, has chosen to accept only women, children and families, and refuse young, single men. Even under this conservative plan, more than half of Canadians oppose their resettlement.
Putting Christians on a fast-track vetting process would go some way toward reversing the discrimination already in place—to date, Syrian Christians have been allotted only 3% of the spaces for refugees in the U.S. despite comprising 10% of the Syrian population. While Syrian Muslims would continue to be subject to a more thorough and stringent security screening, Syrian Christians should be fast-tracked into the U.S. using appropriate screening methods to weed out imposters. Hopefully in the near future, these discriminatory screening policies can converge, and Americans can come to accept greater numbers of innocent refugees regardless of their faith.