The False Dichotomy of Security and Humanitarianism

I was recently asked by a colleague if I would speak to her daughter’s middle school debate team about the Syrian crisis, as the team was to debate whether or not a country should prioritize humanitarian assistance over national interest. The implication I interpreted from the resolution was that humanitarian assistance (presumably in the form of resettlement) runs counter to national interests (presumably in the form of national security or social welfare assistance to your own nationals). So in other words, you either bring refugees into your country and risk a terrorist attack and/or more of “your own” people going hungry, or you keep your country safe from terrorism and feed homeless vets but ignore the humanitarian needs of Syrian refugees.

There are a lot of assumptions that can be unpacked in a resolution like that, which is why I would most likely make a terrible debater. I’ll leave it to the middle schoolers to decide how to approach it during their debate, but here is a list of why this assumed dichotomy between national interests and humanitarian concerns is false.

1. Refugees are not resettled simply because countries care about their well-being. Resettlement is an escape valve for the socio-political pressures that build up when large numbers of people flee their country to a neighboring country and cannot return. It is a way of sharing the burden when the Jordanian government is facing a drought and cannot give more water to the refugees than what their own nationals receive. It is a way of tamping down unrest when thousands of Syrian families float onto the shores of Lesvos with nothing but their babies and the clothes on their back, and have no where else to go. And it is a way of emptying refugee camps where people have already spent years living in without schools for their children, jobs for their working-age adults, and no hope of improvement save for what is offered to them by the local paramilitary group or terrorist cell.

2. Resettlement already involves such tight security, it is hard to imagine how you could make it any more secure. Groups as diverse as  The Cato Institute and The Brookings Institute have explained why Syrian refugees do not pose a credible terrorist threat to the U.S., in part because of the thorough security check that all refugees go through to ensure that they are legitimate refugees. The Department of State halted all refugee resettlement after 9/11 and conducted a thorough review of the entire security procedure, creating a much more thorough process that is difficult for even legitimate refugees to get through, including biometric data screening and DNA testing. House members probably don’t understand that, which is why they recently passed a bill requiring the heads of Homeland Security, the FBI, and national intelligence to sign off on every refugee to be resettled in the U.S. The idea that the heads of the agencies tasked with keeping our country safe have nothing better to do than to review the process their employees already went through would be laughable if it wasn’t so damaging to the numerous refugees who will be delayed in entering the U.S., and a complete waste of those directors’ time.

3. Resettlement is not the only humanitarian solution. In fact, it cannot be. Resettlement to a third country is expensive, complicated, and it takes people out of their region of origin which might play into the hands of people bent on accomplishing ethnic cleansing of an area. And resettlement can only occur when resettlement countries agree to take in refugees, and those commitments never come close to reaching the number of people displaced. That is why resettlement is only possible for less than 1% of refugees worldwide. Resettlement is used as what is called a “durable solution” (meaning it addresses long-term displacement, as opposed to a camp which only addresses the problem in the short term) for refugees who cannot return to their home country or be safely settled in their country of first asylum (i.e. the country in which they first sought asylum). Burden sharing can and should occur in the protection and assistance of refugees who will not be resettled. Here’s where the pressure valve of resettlement comes in; we can bring some of the refugees to the U.S. via resettlement, those who perhaps need medical care that cannot be found in the country of first asylum, or who have family here in the U.S. and thus have a source of support that other refugees without family members here do not. For the vast majority, other forms of humanitarian aid can be provided to countries of first asylum, or to countries in Europe where Syrians are now traveling to. Meanwhile, the violent conflicts in Syria need to be addressed, to stem the flow of refugees and allow rebuilding to take place.

All of the approaches address both humanitarian needs and national security. I would love to think that if we don’t support refugees, we’ll funnel that otherwise unused money and political will into addressing homelessness, the mental health needs of our veterans, child hunger and poverty, or any number of serious injustices in our country. Unfortunately, history has shown that we don’t choose one important cause over another. Too often, we choose to do little or nothing about all injustice. Therefore, people of good will need to fight for humanitarian assistance to refugees as we fight other injustices. As we extend a hand for refugees, we still have hands available for others.


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