Guest Opinions

This Syrian refugee crisis really scares us

Imagine the entire population of Washington and Oregon forced from their homes, as their government or its enemies slaughter their neighbors and ravage their towns and cities. Imagine 4 million people, the population of Oregon, forced to flee for their lives, with nothing, to wander in search of refuge.

I am trying to get some idea of the scope of the Syrian refugee crisis. Like many Americans, I tend to put all that unpleasantness on my mind’s back burner, and convince myself it’s none of my business. Now it’s too much to ignore, and if we had been paying attention we would have realized that some time back. The generally accepted figure is that the civil war has displaced half of Syria’s population of 23 million people. Some 4 million Syrians have left the country and are registered as refugees, half of them children. Some 250,000 have been killed.

The refugees are sheltered by the millions in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and thousands have desperately tried to make their way into Europe. It is generally agreed that this is the worst refugee crisis since World War II, and that’s saying something.

We in the United States have what is sometimes called a proud tradition of welcoming refugees and providing them safety and shelter. Until recently we accepted half the world’s refugees registered with the United Nations. In 2013 we granted asylum to 70,000 people, from all over the world. That’s our official quota. This belies a 300-year tradition of taking in people escaping the world’s conflicts and oppression, from Europe’s wars of religion and politics to Asia’s wars of economic ideology. Chances are good you know a former refugee or the child of a refugee. Dig into your family history and you may find you are descended from one.

In the Syrian crisis to date, the United States, the great beacon, has accepted just 1,500 refugees. There are budget constraints, you see, and some serious vetting and investigation that can take over a year. The truth is, since 9/11 we are afraid. We are afraid they might be terrorists, especially all those people from the Middle East.

On Sunday the Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States refugee cap of 70,000 will be raised to 100,000 per year by 2017. So we will take 30,000 more refugees per year, and a minimum 10,000 will be Syrians. “This step that I am announcing today, I believe, is in keeping with the best tradition of America as a land of second chances and a beacon of hope,” Kerry said.

This perhaps is generous. However, compared with the problem it isn’t much. Germany, not known for its traditional welcome, has vowed to take 800,000 this year. But we can’t do more, due to our self-imposed limits. Apparently we can’t go faster, or we don’t want to.

“One of the reasons it’s difficult is that, post-9/11, we have new laws and new requirements with respect to security background checks and vetting, so it takes longer than one would like, and we cannot cut corners with respect to those security requirements,” said Kerry.

There will be many Americans, a number of them members of Congress, who will say that this gesture is far, far too much. We are scared of refugees, especially from the Middle East. Terrorists might slip into the country. Terrorists will find recruits among the disgruntled refugees.

Likely that fear is overblown, as it usually is. Maybe we’re looking for an excuse, and in the face of one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our age, that’s sad. It’s not like us.