Just days into his presidency, President Donald Trump issued an executive order suspending the United States’ refugee program for 120 days, specifically—and indefinitely—barring Syrian refugees. The President has already received widespread condemnation for the action, which has been labelled as discriminatory and dangerous. Whilst the long-term consequences of this dramatic policy shift are yet to be fully understood, what outcomes can be expected from the cessation of Syrian admissions into the US?
The Syrian refugee crisis presents a multifaceted strategic challenge for the US. In 2014, the UNHCR designated 130,000 registered refugees in camps in need of resettlement by the close of 2016, with 4.8 million total persons of concern. The US has traditionally assumed a leadership role in refugee crises, resettling at least half of UNHCR designations in prior crises. However, from October 2010 to August 2016, the US only admitted a total of 12,623 Syrian refugees.
Under President Obama’s ‘surge operation’ throughout the 2016 US fiscal year, 10,000 Syrian refugees were processed and admitted. Many criticisms were raised in response to Obama’s 2016 policy, arguing that the ‘surge operation’ could have compromised immigration screening standards and jeopardised US national security. Within the polarised climate of contemporary US politics, Obama also faced criticism suggesting that a target of 10,000 Syrian refugees was not nearly high enough.
President Trump’s political agenda is seemingly more domestically focused than Obama’s. Thus far his immigration policy appears to emphasise the two key strategic considerations: security and economic viability.
On Friday 27 January 2017, President Trump announced that he was ‘establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America’. The rationale behind the President’s order is, therefore, the understanding that it eliminates the possibility of terrorist infiltration from Syria through US-bound Syrian refugee populations.
Despite high security standards of the US vetting process, senior government officials have previously acknowledged the possibility of terrorist infiltration of US-bound Syrian refugee populations. Datasets and documentation that are usually relied upon to vet potential admissions are largely inaccessible for Syrians in refugee camps across the Middle East and North Africa region, limiting the efficacy of security processes.
Fear has come to dominate the social media-driven discourse surrounding the refugee crisis. The recent attacks in Berlin and Nice, and 2016 attacks in Paris, Beirut and other cities around the world, have resulted in a surge in hostility and anxiety toward Syrian and broader Middle Eastern immigration to Western countries.
Ceasing further Syrian refugee admissions, therefore, may ease some public fears surrounding national security and Syrian migrants. America continues to fight both an ideological and strategic battle against Jihadi extremism. A spike in radicalisation has been recorded within refugee camps, which is largely attributable to deteriorating conditions and overcrowding caused by a lack of humanitarian aid and funding.
The transnational anxiety surrounding the crisis is compounded by the financial burden of resettling mass population groups. Therefore, a subsequent rationale behind the President’s executive order is likely to be to reduce the financial burden of resettlement on the US. Each Middle Eastern refugee resettled in the US costs, on average, an estimated $64,370 in the first five years. In 2015, prior to Obama’s ‘surge operation’, the Office of Refugee Resettlement spent $582 million in upfront resettlement costs among all the 45,000 refugees arriving in the US.
Whilst there are justifications for the executive order, there are also substantial concerns.
Firstly, the move could increase the risk of driving refugee flows underground into illegal channels. The closing down of formal avenues of refugee migration drives population flows to underground routes, in which terrorist organisations can potentially profit by establishing smuggling channels across borders. Reports show the movement of refugees from the Middle East and Africa into Europe has generated an estimated $323 million for ISIS and other jihadist groups. Suspending formal admissions into the US, and thus potentially encouraging other nations to do the same, would be expected to strengthen smuggling channels.
The suspension could also exacerbate refugee vulnerability to radicalisation. Refugees who are forced to flee their countries and are exposed to horrific trauma before, during and after migration suffer severe psychological distress and vulnerability. Many refugee camps in neighbouring nations experience enduring deterioration and overcrowding, in addition to a substantial lack of aid and resources required to provide adequate health care. Observers predict that leaving large numbers of Syrians in refugee camps will not eliminate nor reduce the terrorist threat.
Finally, as the UN recently implied on Twitter, barring Syrian refugees violates the rights outlined in 1951 Refugee Convention. Under the Convention, refugees are entitled to claim asylum if classified as a refugee as per the Convention's definition. Nations are specifically prohibited from denying this fundamental right based on national origin and prohibited from expelling refugees from their territory, unless the refugee poses a threat to national security. As the US has ratified this international treaty, the government is bound to uphold the rights the treaty enshrines. Prohibiting the admission of all Syrian refugees clearly violates these rights.
At this stage, while the longer-term impact of President Trump’s controversial executive order remains to be seen, the move has already faced legal challenges in court. The public opposition, too, has mobilised, with mass protests sprouting at airports across the country. The suspension of Syrian refugee immigration, and a broader “Muslim ban”, has immediately impacted families returning to the US and will predictably pose enduring challenges for the US, Syrian refugees and the Muslim world.
Chloe Meyer is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.