Michael Ignatieff’s Views on the Syrian War and Refugees

Source: The New York Review of Books, December 17


Michael Ignatieff…ISIS wants to convince the world of the West’s indifference to the suffering of Muslims; so we should demonstrate the opposite. ISIS wants to drag Syria ever further into the inferno; so ending the Syrian war should become the first priority of the Obama administration’s final year in office.

…Canada, Australia, and Britain, countries that have been attacked by terrorists, have not backed away from their commitment to take Syrian refugees, and the US shouldn’t either. To bar refugees from US borders would allow the enemy to dictate the terms of the battle. The US has every reason – moral, humanitarian, and strategic – to refuse to give in to fear and to continue to provide refuge for those escaping barbarism.

…The Refugee Convention of 1951 has been overwhelmed by the reality of 2015. The 11 million people who have fled Syria are not, for the most part, fleeing literally from the Refugee Convention’s “well-founded fear of being persecuted.” They are fleeing violent death: from Assad’s barrel bombs, Russian and American air strikes, ISIS beheadings, militia murders and persecution. The UN authorized a new doctrine in 2005 – the responsibility to protect (R2P) – that mandates state intervention when a tyrant like Assad makes war on his own citizens, but R2P is a dead letter in Syria.

…Before the Paris attacks, polls said Americans were in favor of helping refugees. In the wake of the attacks, it is safe to assume that this is no longer the case. Taking its cue from the public, the Obama administration is likely to keep on treating Europe’s refugee crisis as if it were chiefly Angela Merkel’s responsibility. This is a political error as well as a moral mistake. If it fails to offer Chancellor Merkel tangible support by taking in refugees itself, the United States weakens Merkel domestically and hastens her downfall.

…If US inaction hastens the arrival to power in France of reactionary anti-American demagogues like Marine Le Pen, the Obama administration will share some of the blame. US solidarity with Europe always matters but it matters especially now that Russia is challenging Europe’s eastern borders. By failing to assist Europe, the president allows Eastern European leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to drift ever closer to the Russian orbit and to disseminate Vladimir Putin’s repulsive fiction of a Christian Europe beset by Muslim hordes.

…Instead of stabilizing failing societies before desperate refugees start arriving, the US reaction has been to make it harder for refugees to get in. The US accepts large numbers of immigrants as permanent residents (about a million a year) while throttling back the number of refugees. The admissions of refugees plummeted after September 11 and are only now recovering to about 70,000 annually. After the Paris attacks, security concerns may result in cutting back US refugee admissions still further, even when the facts suggest that the security concerns are manageable. According to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, since September 11 the US has taken in 784,000 refugees and of these only three have been arrested subsequently on terrorism related charges.

…There is no higher priority for the last year of Obama’s presidency. Taking in 65,000 refugees supports the most generous of the Europeans – Germany and Sweden – and helps them shame the worst. Giving assistance to the frontline states – Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey – with their refugee burden helps to preserve what stability remains in the region and rebuts the presumption that the US has abandoned them. In a war against jihadi nihilism, in a world of collapsing states and civil war, a refugee policy that refuses to capitulate to fear belongs at the center of any American and European strategy.


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