‘Demagogic’ Anti-Migrant Rhetoric Will Hurt America

Madeleine Albright and Stephen Hadley criticize efforts to keep out Syrian migrants

The terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 have produced an alarming anti-migrant backlash in the United States.

Republican presidential frontrunner Ben Carson has compared migrants fleeing the war in Syria to dogs.

Another Republican presidential contender, Donald Trump, said he would support setting up a database to track Muslim Americans.

Two other Republican presidential hopefuls, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, want to put the focus on helping Christian migrants.

And in Congress, Republicans and Democratic representatives have joined forces to pass a bill that would require all Syrian and Iraqi refugees to be personally vouched for by top US officials — a proposal which the FBI is calling “impossible.”

Two former senior US officials have lashed out at what they described as “demagogic” sentiment toward the migrants.

Efforts by the United States and Europe in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) “risk being overtaken by the divisive and counterproductive debate taking place on refugees,” Madeleine K. Albright, a former US Secretary of State who currently serves as a co-Chair of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force, said in a phone briefing on Nov. 20.

Anti-migrant rhetoric and the House bill are “deeply disturbing,” said Albright, adding, “they would punish an extremely vulnerable population of people who have been victimized by dictators and terrorists; they run contrary to American values; and they would do nothing to strengthen our security.”

The story of the migrants is a personal one for Albright, who arrived in the United States with her family as a refugee from Czechoslovakia sixty-seven years ago.

“I do know what it is like to have to leave your home and travel halfway around the world in hopes of finding refuge,” she said. “I can’t imagine fleeing from terrorism and violence only to be told that I am too much of a security threat to be admitted into the United States. It is just plain wrong and it sends the wrong message to the world.”

Stephen J. Hadley, a former National Security Advisor who Co-Chairs the Atlantic Council Middle East Strategy Task Force with Albright, said the United States already has in place a thorough vetting process for refugees.

“No one wants to let terrorists slip into this country by posing as refugees,” said Hadley. “What is often lost in this conversation is that there is an established process already in place to try to prevent this from happening.”

Refugees are vetted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and only those who clear that process are referred to other countries, including the United States, to start a bid for asylum that involves extensive screenings by multiple agencies.

“Given that we have a screening process that protects the US homeland from terrorists, if we now categorically refuse to take refugees from Syria and Iraq it will only confirm the narrative of ISIS that this really is a war on Muslims, that Muslims are not welcome in the West, and that the ISIS caliphate is the last best hope and true home for embattled Muslims,” said Hadley.

“I can’t think of anything that would be a better recruiting tool for ISIS than that kind of conclusion,” he added.

Hadley put the anti-migrant sentiment being voiced in the United States and Europe down to the shock caused by the attacks in Paris. The discovery of a Syrian passport near the scene of one of the suicide bombings and reports that one of the attackers had used a route frequented by migrants have contributed to backlash.

“Nobody wants to be accused of being soft on terror,” said Hadley. “So you have … politicians falling over themselves to position themselves on the right.”

“I would hope that the conversation that now has gotten started — competing voices will begin having an impact,” he said, adding it is important for leaders, including candidates, to engage the American people in this conversation.

Albright said the migrant debate is one being driven by fear. “Our policies should never be driven by the fear factor,” she said.

‘An American success story’

Refugee resettlement is an “American success story” and it would be gravely damaging to the United States’ global reputation for this to be overturned, said David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee.

“Sanctuary for refugees and safety for Americas are two goals that go hand-in-hand. They are not in conflict, sanctuary and safety, they are actually in harmony,” he said.

Syria’s neighbors — particularly Turkey (2.1 million), Lebanon (1 million), Jordan (633,000), and Iraq (244,000) — have taken in the bulk of the four million refugees created by the war. In comparison, the United States has taken in around 1,500 Syrian migrants and the White House has said it will take in 10,000 over the next year.

Given this reality, the United States cannot ask other countries to do more to help migrants if it becomes selective about whom it will or will not accept, said Albright.

Syria’s neighbors urgently need support, said Ray Offenheiser, President and CEO of Oxfam America.

Syrian refugees, most of whom are well-educated professionals, must be given the right to work and, therefore, make a positive contribution in their host countries, he said.

“We risk losing a whole generation of Syrians through this conflict. That’s what’s on the line right now,” he added.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Ashish Kumar Sen

Image: A Syrian refugee boy is seen shortly after arriving on a raft overcrowded with migrants and refugees in the Greek island of Lesbos on Nov. 20. (Reuters/Yannis Behrakis)