Geographies in Depth

Why taking in Syrian refugees will be good for Europe’s security

John Shattuck
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This article is published in collaboration with Project Syndicate.

Europe and the United States should open their doors to Syrian and Iraqi refugees. They are the victims of the Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime. Terrorism has destroyed their homelands. Not only is offering them refuge the right thing to do; it is also good for our security.

The Islamic State’s attacks in Paris in November were designed to produce fear by bringing the group’s crimes against humanity into the heart of Europe; and politicians, by equating refugees with terrorists, are pandering to it. Razor-wire fences and political barriers are being erected in the path of asylum-seekers.

In the battle for hearts and minds, branding refugees as security threats – as politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are doing – only fuels intolerance and gives terrorists a potent recruitment tool to convince young Muslims that the West has no place for them.

This is a battle of values that we should be winning. Modern Europe was built on the ashes of World War II and the Holocaust. Europe’s values – and those of its principal postwar sponsor, the US – are tolerance, diversity, and human rights.

Europe has vast experience with refugees. Millions of Europeans fled from violence and persecution during and after World War II. In the 1990s, a genocidal conflict in the Balkans forced hundreds of thousands of the region’s residents to seek refuge in countries to the north. The massive exodus from the Middle East as hundreds of thousands flee war and terror is just the latest chapter in Europe’s long history as a destination for refugees.

Meanwhile, for more than a century, the US, in the words of the poet Emma Lazarus, has provided refuge to “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Security concerns have been addressed as each new wave has arrived. More than a million Vietnamese were resettled in the US during and after the Vietnam War, and nearly 400,000 refugees from Muslim-majority countries have been accepted by the US since the September 11, 2001, attacks.

It is this proud history that European and American politicians are ignoring. Hungary and other Central European countries have sealed their borders, and right-wing political parties across Europe have stoked anti-Muslim mania. In the US, Republican politicians – congressmen, governors and presidential candidates – are trying to derail the resettlement of a miniscule number of Syrian refugees (just 10,000) in the US. In short, Western anti-refugee politics are playing directly into the hands of the Islamic State’s propagandists.

Western leaders cannot simply wish the refugee crisis away by turning their backs on those fleeing terror. Asylum-seekers will continue to pour into Europe in large numbers, with the United Nations Refugee Agency predicting a 44% increase next year. Global management is urgently needed to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.

The European Union and the US must develop a coordinated strategy to address the crisis. First, the international humanitarian relief effort must be scaled up sharply. The UN agencies charged with providing basic necessities to refugees are grossly underfunded and unable to meet more than 40% of the demand. Huge refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon lack sufficient food, water, sanitation, medical care, and education. It is, in part, these desperate conditions that are pushing refugees to Europe and beyond.

Second, the US should lead an international effort to coordinate the resettlement of qualified, security-screened Syrian and Iraqi refugees. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken a courageous stance by receiving more than 700,000 asylum-seekers this year – 70 times the number the US has proposed accepting. Prodded by Merkel, the EU has developed a quota system for apportioning refugees. The US should help shoulder the burden by accepting 100,000 refugees next year and using its influence to persuade other countries to join an international resettlement initiative.

Finally, the US and Europe should step up diplomatic efforts to achieve a ceasefire and negotiated end to the war in Syria. This will involve working with Russia and Iran on the divisive question of who will govern Syria when the war is over, as well as broadening the international coalition to defeat the Islamic State.

Terrorists like those who attacked Paris want to destroy our values because they know these are our most effective weapons against them. That is why the US and Europe should open their doors to the victims of terror in the Middle East.

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: John Shattuck, former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, is President and Rector of Central European University.

Image: Migrants stand on board of Italian Navy ship Chimera before to be disembarked in the southern harbour of Salerno. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca.

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