Type to search

Does Taking in Syrian Refugees Constitute a Moral Obligation for the West?

News Opinions

Does Taking in Syrian Refugees Constitute a Moral Obligation for the West?


By: Banafsheh Madaninejad, part-time assistant professor of religion

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that some of our most profound moral insights come not from theory but from experience. Consider the case of Jewish refugees in July of 1938. Representative from over 30 countries met in France to discuss how to respond to the refugee crisis generated by Hitler’s persecution of German Jews. None of those states offered to take in more refugees except for the Dominican Republic. Some Jews who were better off, the leading intellectuals and scientists, and those with political connections and few other lucky ones did manage found an open door. Many more were turned away. In a now famous case in 1939, Jewish refugees from Germany reached the shore of North Arica in a ship called St. Louis and sought asylum. They were refused permission to land. The boat returned to Europe and many of its passengers perished in the Holocaust. The death camps had not been built at this point and many Americans had differing perceptions about the extent of the Jewish oppression at the hands of the Third Reich. It seems incontestable that the response of democratic states to the Jewish refugee crisis of the late 1930s was a profound moral failure, something that we should acknowledge as a shameful moment in our histories and resolve never to repeat.

The scale and desperation of the Syrian refugee crisis is now being compared to the one that took place in the late 30s and we are pretty clear as to what is happening in Syria. The U.N. estimates that the Syrian civil war has created 4 million refugees. The overwhelming majority of those refugees live in camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. About 350,000 have sought asylum in Europe.

Could we possibly use this terrible historical example of the failure of democratic values to accept Jewish refugees in the 1930’s as a constraint upon our inquiry about the ethics of admitting refugees? If so, then whatever principles for the approaches to this crisis we suggest should take us back to the same question: what would this have meant if we had applied to the Jews escaping the Nazis?

When talking about admittance of immigrants in general and refugees in particular, the conventional assumption is a familiar constraint: that democratic states have the right to exercise discretionary control over immigration. We have the right to deny admission to whomever we choose. There is a consensus among all nations that refugees have special moral claims to admission. But why should specifically “democratic” states feel a duty to take in refugees? Joseph Carens, a political theorist on immigration highlights two reasons: humanitarian concern and causal reasons.

First rationale or source of duty Carens suggests for the admittance of refugees is humanitarian concern. We have a duty to admit refugees simply because they have an urgent need for a safe place to live and we are in a position to provide it. When we look back at the Jewish example used earlier the appeal that experience makes is intuitively to an overlapping consensus, to a shared sense which for many is foundational – a sense that has roots in either religious and or secular sensibilities. Once we become aware of what is happening on the ground in current day Syria we are moved at least initially to open our doors to the refugees.

Another duty one can argue the West might have towards refugees originates from a causal connection. Sometimes we have an obligation to admit refugees because actions taken by our own states have contributed in some way to the fact that the refugees are no longer safe in their home country. More than 25% of the four million “Syrian” refugees are in fact Iraqis who have fled the destruction that has reigned upon their heads since 1980. So let’s talk about the possibility of duties generated by causal connections towards Iraqis.

Iraq has been in a more or less continuous state of war since September 1980 when Saddam Hussein attacked its neighbor Iran; a war that lasted 8 years and is considered one of the bloodiest wars of the 20th century with an estimated loss of one million lives. U.S. complicity in the war in favor of the Iraqi side, was not a secret and was frequently discussed in open sessions of the Senate and House of Representatives. On June 9, 1992, Ted Koppel reported on ABC‘s Nightline that the “Reagan/Bush administrations permitted—and frequently encouraged—the flow of money, agricultural credits, dual-use technology, chemicals, and weapons to Iraq.” In fact, on February 9, 1994, Senator Riegle delivered a report – commonly known at the Riegle Report – in which it was stated that “pathogenic, toxigenic, and other biological research materials were exported to Iraq pursuant to application and licensing by the U.S. Department of Commerce.” The report concluded that “it was later learned that these microorganisms exported by the United States were identical to those the UN inspectors found and recovered from the Iraqi biological warfare program.”

Putting the spotlight on the Iran-Iraq war in connection with causal responsibility towards refugees highlights the West’s general complicity and support of “war” as a category. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (The United States, Russia, France, United Kingdom and China), together with Germany and Italy account for around 85% of the arms sold between 2004 and 2011, 75% percent of which is sold to developing and sometimes repressive countries like Saddam’s Iraq and Assad’s Syria.

Let’s fast forward to the 1991 Gulf War where US-led forces dropped 84,200 tons of munitions on Iraq and Kuwait during 43 days of bombing. That’s almost six Hiroshima’s at 15,000 tons. Unguided weaponry, “dumb” bombs, with a reported estimated accuracy rate of only 25 percent accounted for 91.2% of dropped munitions. They caused major damage to Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, including electricity generation and water and sanitation facilities. A total of 110,000 Iraqi civilians, including 70,000 children under the age of five and 7,000 elderly, died as a result of “war-induced adverse health effects” caused by the destruction of infrastructure. The sanctions against Iraq which followed the war were a near-total financial and trade embargo imposed by the United Nations Security Council. They began in August 6, 1990, four days after Iraq‘s invasion of Kuwait, and stayed largely in force until May 2003 (after Saddam Hussein was forced from power). UNICEF estimates claimed that 500,000 children alone perished under the sanctions regime.

This brings us to the 2003 Iraq War. The Bush Administration based its rationale for war principally on the assertion that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and that Saddam’s government posed an immediate threat to the United States and its coalition allies because it was harboring al-Qaeda. We attacked Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks as a strategic move in the War on Terror using fabricated evidence. Counts of deaths reported in newspapers collated by projects like the Iraq Body Count found 174,000 Iraqis reported killed between 2003 and 2013, 70 % of which were civilian noncombatants.

On October 25th 2015, Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister during George W. Bush’s administration, indicated, in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, that he apologized for the mistaken intelligence that lead to the war. He apologized for the flawed planning and the lack of understanding of what would happen when troops were pulled out. He also saw merit in the argument that The Iraq War was to blame for the rise of Islamic State (ISIS). “I think there are elements of truth in that,” he said when asked whether the Iraq invasion had been the “principal cause” of the rise of ISIS. And this is what brings us to Syria and ISIS. Hinting at a sense of duty towards refugees from both Iraq and Syria, Blair also added that: “of course you can’t say those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015.”

There is a loose consensus now that ISIS has its roots in failures and miscalculations that were made back in 2003. In the very earliest months after U.S. forces and U.S. civilian leaders descended upon Baghdad in the spring and summer of 2003, some fateful decisions were made.

The most destructive perhaps being the decision to disband the Iraqi army, to ban many mid-level members of the Ba’ath party (Saddam Hussein’s ruling Sunni party) from ever participating in political life again. These moves had a disproportionate impact on the Sunni Arab population, sending many of them essentially into the arms of the nascent insurgency, telling them that they really didn’t have a future in the grand experiment that was going to be the new Iraq.

The point I’m trying to make here is that casual connections generate moral duties. It is clear that the assignment of this moral responsibility based on casual connections will depend crucially on the “interpretation” of those causal connections. But I am not sure if there is much room for any sort of “radical” hermeneutics here. The baseless invasion, the tragic body count, the near complete destruction of Iraqi infrastructure (what was left of it after the 1991 bombings and more than a decade long crippling sanctions) and the US failure to make adequate preparations for the aftermath of the invasion, not only the political disenfranchisement of one of the most battle-ready group of soldiers, administrators and police force in the history of the 20th century, but also their economic and social marginalization are some of the reasons that come to mind when thinking about the duty to take in Syrian refugees.