Kenan Refugee Project students pen response to refugee backlash

25 Nali-400On Fear, Violence, and Blame: The Effects of Last Week’s Attacks on the Syrian Refugee Crisis

By Nourhan Elsayed, Olivia Johnson, Josephine Ramseyer, and Maura Smyles

Fear has the power to influence conviction. In light of the attacks on humanity that occurred in Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris last week, it may even have the power to govern it. How we choose to let fear color our resolve will determine the effects of this violence—effects that extend far beyond death tolls. With the unveiling of one of the attackers as a Syrian who posed as a refugee when he entered the EU through Greece, we have a choice about what we will fear. We can choose to fear the possibility of future attacks, or we can choose to fear all Syrian refugees, or all refugees, or all Muslims, or all people who look like they could be Muslim, or all Arabs, or all people who look like they could be Arab. The distinction between these fears is one that goes unrecognized by many but has and will continue to have drastic consequences for the 59.5 million (recorded) displaced people worldwide.

The aftermath of tragedy is not the time to propel a particular agenda. Events such as these are often exploited as a means to a political end that capitalize on the relevance of collective trauma: the fear it inspires. We do not seek to point fingers at any particular politicians, political parties, or governments for the stances they have adopted since the attacks, although we certainly could. We do not seek to promote any particular policy reforms. What we do seek is to ensure that an already vulnerable population is not made more vulnerable or villainized as a result of this tragedy. Our concerns are multiple. The first is for those who are trapped within the borders of failing countries. The second is for those living in countries of asylum. The third is for those whose resettlement is underway, at whatever point in the process.

The implications of policies generated by the fear of attacks such as these have already begun to prevent people fleeing violence from gaining access to safety. Politicians across the Global North have called to increase security in order to deny Syrian refugees asylum, even though they are legally entitled to international protection under the 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and according to the 2014 Berlin Conference Declaration on the Syrian Refugee Situation. As of Monday night, twenty-three U.S. governors said they will reject admittance of Syrian refugees to their states. These states include: Illinois, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maine, Iowa, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Arizona, Indiana, Massachusetts, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan, Alabama, Texas, Kansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Even though there is “no lawful means that permits a state government to dictate immigration policy,” the consequences of such rhetoric can lead to tightened or even closed national borders.

This will not only place an increased burden on Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan (the countries hosting the majority of Syrian refugees) but also on less-resourced European nations that are already dependent on their wealthier neighbors to share the responsibility of their asylum-seeker populations. This will also have severe consequences on the refugees themselves, who may have to resort to entering the EU illegally, remaining in nations that are ill-equipped to support them, or risking everything by returning to the danger that they fled in the first place.

For those who have reached countries of asylum, an increase in the generalized fear of refugees from Arab countries as a result of the attacks could negatively affect their safety and sense of wellbeing among host populations that view all refugees—regardless of nationality—as “other.” Even though Syrian refugees are fleeing the very forces that executed last week’s attacks, due to misplaced blame and heightened xenophobia in their host countries they are now in danger of being further marginalized. Sentiments such as these can result in decreased funding allocated toward camp welfare, food provisions, healthcare services, educational incentives, and housing subsidies within countries of asylum, can negatively impact the actual attainment of resettlement quotas in third countries, and hinder the livelihoods of refugees should they reach their final country of asylum.

The desire for safety from the daily realities of attacks such as those that occurred in Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris is what has driven millions of refugees to uproot their families and risk their lives on dangerous journeys to asylum. Regardless of messages that seek to shake our resolve, these people are not to be feared—they fear just as we do. In this time of universal healing, it is imperative that the world consider how refugees fit into the complicated fabric of the global recovery process, not as villains or victims or other, but as members of the international community reeling from last week’s collective loss.