The GOP’s Unfortunate Neglect of the Syrian Refugee Crisis

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The GOP’s Unfortunate Neglect of the Syrian Refugee Crisis

The GOP’s Unfortunate Neglect of the Syrian Refugee Crisis

By Sam Davidoff-Gore
December 2015


All of the Republican presidential candidates have called for some form of escalation of attacks against the Islamic State in Syria, whether it be the creation of a regional ground force, a carpet bombing campaign, or a major U.S. troop deployment. For all the candidates’ stated concerns about refugees, these proposals, which include calls to loosen the rules of engagement that protect civilian populations, ignore their humanitarian consequences: any escalation will increase the flow of Syrian refugees to the already overwhelmed countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. But listening to the candidates, one would think that there is no refugee crisis except for the population fleeing to Europe and the refugees being resettled in the United States.

Ben Carson has made a notable effort to understand the Syrian refugee crisis in the Middle East. He recently returned from a trip to Jordan where he visited refugee camps and met with Syrian refugees, NGO workers, and Jordanian officials. But Carson’s statements during and after the trip demonstrate that he learned little about the crisis, though his perspective has gained more nuance than his fellow candidates.

The GOP presidential candidates are united in calling for a pause in the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Adding to the flawed argument that Syrian refugees are a security threat to the United States, Gov. Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump have cited cultural, linguistic, and weather-related differences between the United States and the Middle East as reasons that resettlement would be bad for the refugees. This is just casting about for excuses and ignores the large refugee population in the United States that is fully assimilated in such frigid states as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Colorado, and New York.

Additionally, Carson has said that resettling Syrian refugees in the United States is something that only “makes us feel good” and is not a real solution, ignoring both the very real, positive impact that resettlement has on the lives of refugees and the importance of resettlement as a point of solidarity with Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. By standing in solidarity with the countries on the front-lines of the Syrian refugee crisis, the United States strengthens its relationship with these countries and has increased moral leverage to promote refugee-friendly policies. Furthermore, as David Miliband and Nicholas Burns argue, by resettling Syrian refugees the United States gains the authority to call on the Gulf States to do more for Syrian refugees.

Most GOP candidates do not go beyond calling for a resettlement pause when discussing the Syrian refugee crisis, a negligent decision to ignore an important foreign policy issue. But, Carson, along with Huckabee and some Republican members of Congress, have gone further, criticizing Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States for not resettling Syrian refugees and calling on them to do more. (This argument is fleshed out by Douglas Feith in the Wall Street Journal.) While it is true that the Gulf States should be providing more for Syrian refugees as well as resettling them, there is no way for the international community to force them to do so. First, these states are not signatories to either the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. This means that while they claim, dubiously, that they have resettled Syrians as “guests” and “workers,” they are not legally obligated to provide these Syrians with the rights and protections associated with being a “refugee.” Second, because none of the Gulf States borders Syria, they are able to physically keep Syrians out, unlike Jordan and Lebanon. Unfortunately for the GOP, simply stating that we should resettle Syrian refugees in the Gulf States does not constitute sound policy, especially given their calls to halt resettlement in the United States. Without meeting its own moral obligation to accept refugees, the United States cannot expect other nations to shoulder this burden.

Funding of refugee services in Jordan is where Carson completely stands out from the GOP field. He alone calls for increased assistance for Jordan, claiming “all they need is adequate funding,” as if that is the only obstacle to refugees happily staying in refugee camps until the end of the Syrian war. (Sen. Lindsey Graham co-sponsored legislation with Sen. Patrick Leahy to spend an additional $1 billion on the Syrian refugee crisis this year, but has since distanced himself from that bill.) Carson is correct that UNHCR’s Syrian refugee response effort is woefully underfunded and that important services, such as food vouchers, have had to be limited because of the funding. But, Carson’s belief that funding is a silver bullet that will create a sustainable open-ended refugee community ignores reality.

It is unclear how much interaction Carson had with Syrian refugees while in Jordan. He reportedly visited Azraq and Zaatari refugee camps, but his campaign has not released an itinerary. In his visit to Zaatari he most likely saw that it is possible for Syrians to rebuild their lives in refugee camps. But he and the rest of the GOP field ignores, or are ignorant of, the issues of insecurity and sexual violence that plague these refugee camps, issues that simply providing more money cannot fix. He further ignores the much larger population of Syrian refugees that live outside of camps. Finally, he ignores the larger Syrian refugee populations in Lebanon and Turkey, not addressing how he would assist those countries handle their refugee populations. Despite understanding that Jordan needs more monetary assistance, Carson, along with the rest of the GOP field, fails to grasp the complexity of the situation and the nuance required to address it. Throwing money at the situation will not help.

Dr. Carson is the only GOP candidate to seriously address the humanitarian aspect of the Syrian refugee crisis. Given his demonstrated lack of understanding of foreign policy issues, this speaks volumes about how little the GOP presidential candidates care about addressing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. The GOP has been unable to articulate a clear strategy for addressing the Syrian refugee crisis, just as they have been unable to articulate a clear strategy to fight the Islamic State. That their proposals would increase the flow of Syrian refugees is just another sad irony of the GOP’s poor understanding of the Syrian civil war.


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