Why Trump’s refugee policy is unnecessary, counterproductive and cruel

Trump’s executive order signed on the 27th of January 2017, restricts the movement of all refugees to the USA and immigrants from seven muslim-majority countries. President Trump has an obligation to explain his reasoning in clear, academic terms. His explanation of this heinous act of isolationism has been woefully inadequate thus far.

Perhaps the most head-scratching element of Trump’s decision was the 120-day suspension of refugee inflows. Between 1975 and 2015, the USA admitted 3,252,493 refugees. Twenty of those were found to be terrorists and only three of those terrorists carried out an attack. Critics might argue that the rise of ISIS and the expansion of the war on terror increases the terrorist threat from refugees. The US have admitted 859,629 refugees since the birth of the war on terror (September 11th 2001) and as a result, three refugees have been arrested for having terrorist connections (only one was actually planning an attack). Since 2001, there have been three non-deadly terrorist attacks by refugees. Libertarian-leaning think tank, the Cato Institute have found that the likelihood of being killed in a refugee in a terrorist attack is 1 in 3.64 billion. Better safe than sorry, right

Trump also singled out Syrian refugees for no apparent justifiable reason. Syrian refugees will be prevented from entering the USA indefinitely. The USA has accepted a very small amount of Syrian refugees: 105 in 2014, 1,682 in 2015 and 12,587 in 2016. Only 2% of Syrians coming the USA are military-aged, single men – the demographic most likely to commit terrorism. Three-quarters of Syrian refugees are women and children. One might say that Syrians pose a unique threat due to ISIS’s presence in the region (though ISIS is also in Iraq). This is partly true, but does that fact alone justify banning refugees from Syria indefinitely? What is the likelihood that there is an ISIS member lurking among the 10,000 refugees who are able to pass the USA’s incredibly scrupulous vetting process. It’s impossible to know but let’s actually tackle this problem.


Imagine you are Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, you have declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, you have a declining numbers of followers, you are currently fighting state armies in Mosul and eventually Raqqa, you have an incredibly powerful and far-reaching propaganda campaign, now ask yourself this question: why should I send one of my fighters to undergo a typically 2-year long vetting process and risk being caught to conduct an attack on US soil? Wouldn’t it be much smarter to use your magnetic propaganda campaign to inspire vulnerable US citizens to shoot up their local gay nightclub (as has tragically happened)? ISIS have been so effective because their message is intoxicating to Islamists around the world. ISIS is not Nazi Germany, Nazis didn’t just start popping up around the world to fight for the Nazi cause in their home country. ISIS have that power, anyone can be a jihadist and anyone can fight for ISIS’s cause in their home country by simply strapping a bomb to one’s chest and walking into a crowded area. This is the tactic ISIS use to commit terrorist attacks abroad, they have never used the US refugee program as a means to smuggle terrorists into the USA and will continue to use the most effective method of sparking terrorist attacks abroad: propaganda. Counterterrorism expert Anne Speckhard at Georgetown University said it “makes no operational sense” for ISIS to attempt to infiltrate the refugee program. Given how easy it is for terrorists to get to Europe and travel to the US via Europe, why would they make the risky decision to wait the 2 years it takes to get refugee status?

Above, I questioned whether sending an ISIS member through the USA’s scrupulous refugee vetting process would be the most effective way to spark a terrorist attack. It’s obviously not, there is a high risk of getting caught, it takes roughly 2 years, wastes a valuable fighter in Iraq and Syria and could be done much more efficiently. But just how thorough is the USA’s refugee vetting program, is it even possible for a ISIS member to jump every hurdle? To me, if the vetting process is up to scratch, Trump’s executive order is rendered practically pointless. The success of the system so far may provide some hints as to its effectiveness.

Refugees first have to apply to the UNHCR for refugee status. The United Nations currently defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence.” They elaborate: “A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.” If you support a moratorium on refugee intake, then you are actively deciding to reject someone who “has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence,” has “a well-founded fear of persecution” and “cannot return home or are afraid to do so.” Of those lucky enough to be given refugee status, only 1 percent will ever be resettled. Those that are in fact resettled, are incredibly lucky and are likely to show their gratitude.

As Vox.com points out: “The vetting process for each individual refugee involves:

  • “Eight government agencies — including the National Counterterrorism Center, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and State Department
  • Six security databases
  • Five separate background checks
  • Four biometric security checks — that means fingerprints, checked against databases
  • Three separate, in-person interviews
  • Two interagency security checks running data against criminal, intelligence, and terrorism databases”

If you would like an even more thorough outline of the vetting process, the nytimes.com breaks down the 20 step process in detail.

Is it impossible for an ISIS member to slip through the vetting system? No. Are the chances so catastrophic that the President is forced to decline thousands of well-meaning, hard-working refugees a chance to live a life in safety? No. In fact, the chances are fairly minuscule.

The world is facing the largest refugee crisis since Word War II. In 2015, the number of displaced people in the world totaled 65.3 million. Of that displaced population, many will be classified as a refugee according to a criteria constructed by the UNHCR. The refugee crisis is an obvious problem; this is undeniable. Problems require solutions and to complex problems, there is often no perfect solution. Currently, Lebanon (a country with a population of 4.5 million and a size smaller than almost all US states) is home to 1 million Syrian refugees. Turkey is home to more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees. This is clearly unsustainable. Trump’s refusal to contribute and his decision to reduce the maximum number of refugees from 110,000 to 50,000 is a mistake. At a time when the number of globally displaced people is at a record high, pausing and reducing refugee intake will be blight on American history. The USA along with all other countries must accept refugees themselves and help countries in close proximity to refugee epicenters. Instead, Trump is handcuffing 5-year old US citizens with Iranian mothers and having his Press secretary justify it like this: “To assume that just because of someone’s age or gender or whatever that they don’t pose a threat would be misguided and wrong.”

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Trump’s decision to pause refugee intake for 120 days, pause immigration from 7 muslim-majority countries, reduce annual refugee intake and indefinitely pause Syrian refugee intake is laughably counterproductive. If I were an American, I would almost certainly feel less safe as a result of Trump’s executive order. Iran’s Supreme leader Ayotollah Khamenei tweeted “We appreciate Trump! Because he largely did the job for us in revealing true face of America.” ISIS proclaimed in an issue of their propaganda magazine Dabiq: “Muslims in the crusader countries [i.e., the West] will find themselves driven to abandon their homes … as the crusaders increase persecution against Muslims living in Western lands.” How much easier do you think it will be for ISIS to convince disaffected and vulnerable Sunni muslims in Iraq and Syria of the above notion as a result of Trump’s executive order (especially considering Trump’s specific cruelty towards refugees from Syria, where ISIS currently resides)? Much easier is the answer.

ISIS’s narrative is that there is a conspiracy perpetuated by Western powers against Sunni Islam. As US-born former al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki predicted: “The West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens.” ISIS is very skilled at taking advantage of anything that proves their narrative. In 2011 when US forces left Iraq, Iraqi leader Nouri Al-Maliki (a Shiite) persecuted Sunni muslims and ostracized them from the Iraqi government. When ISIS invaded Mosul (a Sunni-majority city) in 2014, many Sunni residents welcomed them with open arms due to the supposed safety they thought ISIS would provide. Trump’s executive order is no different. The more the west is hostile to muslims, the more ISIS’s narrative seems credible to potential recruits. And by ‘potential recruits’, I mean recruits on US soil as well. It is now much more likely for a disaffected muslim in the US to buy into ISIS’s narrative. When the next Orlando massacre happens, we will only wonder how much of a role Trump’s hostility towards muslims played in the perpetuator’s path to radicalization.

Trump’s executive order is also terrible foreign policy. In the fight against ISIS, Iraq is a very important ally. They are currently leading the ground effort against ISIS in Mosul. As Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies puts it: “Iraq is one strategic partner that is bearing most of the burden in the fight against ISIS. And has lost thousands of soldiers along the way. It’s a country that the US needs on its side. But Iraq is one of the countries included in the ban and they’re not happy. It’s humiliating, its like spitting in the face of Iraqis. When you are essentially fighting side-by-side with Iraqi troops, to ban all entry from Iraq made no real sense at all (and) was an almost perfect way of alienating a partner…the impact the message you are sending all of these countries is that regardless of who they are, how much they cooperate with the United States, they’re going to be excluded.” A group of former CIA and state department officials also came out against the ban from a foreign policy perspective, filing a brief echoing Cordeman’s point.

We’ve perhaps already seen the effects of Trump’s executive order. A day after the executive order’s signing, a Quebec Mosque was victim to a terrorist attack by a Trump supporter in which six people died. A classmate of the terrorist stated “I wrote him off as a xenophobe. I didn’t even think of him as totally racist, but he was enthralled by a borderline racist nationalist movement.” It’s impossible to know whether Trump’s executive order was motivation for the young terrorist, but I’d say there’s a high probability. It’s ironic that someone so afraid of terrorists can be compelled to become one themself.

Some might say that accepting too many muslim refugees might lead to the devastating situation European countries like Germany is in. There’s a very simple solution to this: don’t accept too many refugees (like Germany did). Trump supporters often build a false dichotomy: either one is Angela Merkel or Donald Trump. To them, these are the two options. There is a middle ground, please find it. Even if the USA did accept too many refugees (which they don’t), their vetting system is much more thorough than many European countries. The USA and the Middle east are also divided by vast oceans, unlike Europe and the Middle East.

Some might also say that muslim refugees hold beliefs that are not compatible with Western civilization. This is possible (though not certain), but try telling this to a Syrian family who has been forced to flee their home: “Sorry, you’re either going to have to stay in the whole of a refugee camp you’re currently at, or go back home and risk you and your children’s lives. Why, you ask? Because of your beliefs.” These are human beings, first and foremost. Their religious/political beliefs may be extremely intolerant and perhaps even despicable (and these traits are not preferable), but they’re fear is not some abstraction, it’s real. They are genuinely fleeing a marauding death cult the likes of which we haven’t seen for half a century. So frankly, my disposition to reject those who hold theocratic, barbaric beliefs is largely outweighed by my very human tendency to help those fleeing violent persecution. We have to get our priorities straight.

For this reason, I support Trump’s decision to favor minorities among refugee communities. In 2016, the US accepted 38,901 muslim refugees and 37,521 christian refugees. I cannot fault this ratio. However, of the 12,587 Syrian refugees accepted, only 0.5% were Christian (despite Christians making up 5-10% of the Syrian population). There are many theories that attempt to explain this discrepancy but regardless of which one is correct, it stands that these minorities are the most persecuted communities in the Middle East. Prioritizing Yazidis, Christians or others, in my mind, would not be so immoral. They also have the added benefit of being less likely to radicalize than muslim refugees. Let me make this clear, based on the evidence I have seen, I believe it is highly unlikely for muslim refugees to radicalize after settling in the USA. Though it’s even less likely for Christians to radicalize. Increasing the percentage of minorities among the Syrian refugee intake (perhaps to 5%) will help the most persecuted communities in Syria.

Furthermore, defeating Islamism around the world is not going to be done by empowering it’s most extreme elements, its going to be done by winning a war of ideas by celebrating moderate muslims. Ask yourself, is accepting 40,000 or so muslim refugees every year (who have been properly and scrupulously vetted, are grateful to be relieved of a constant fear of persecution and most of whom are women and children) going to dramatically change the fabric of Western society? Give me a break. Sam Harris, whom many on the left wrongly label an ‘Islamaphobe’ goes so far to say that moderate muslims are the “most important people in the world”; instead of ostracizing them, lets welcome them into western society, put them on a pedestal and show the Islamists the virtues of liberalism.