Republicans and the Politicization of Refugees

By Geoff Moore

The United States has been slower than Europe to start seriously debating the refugee and migrant crisis. This is not entirely surprising since Europe is far easier to get to for Syrians and others fleeing their home countries. The US is isolated geographically, so it does not have to deal with migrants arriving on the coast or crossing borders on foot. However, the November attacks in Paris dramatically intensified the debate, especially among the presidential candidates and Republican governors. Perhaps the distance between the US and Syria can explain the lack of interest or understanding of the crisis, but this does not justify the way that Republicans have been allowed to speak about the crisis and their approaches to refugees.

Vox helpfully categorized the positions of the presidential candidates in a chart which shows the deep contrast between Democrats and Republicans on the refugee issue. It is not surprising that the major division is between those who want to take in refugees and those who do not, but a troubling development is the assertion by Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz that only Syrian Christians should be permitted refuge in the United States.[1] It is unclear how they would actually accomplish this, and Americans should be concerned about the implications of a religious test. At the very least however, this plan would still permit some refugees to arrive stateside.

The propositions of Donald Trump and Ben Carson deserve careful analysis, as they are far more troubling, for a few reasons. Trump, who has made a game out of stretching the truth during his campaign, has called for the US to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS and “build a big beautiful safe zone” for refugees to remain in Syria.[2] Carson, who recently visited refugee camps in Jordan, has a similar plan to keep refugees in the Middle East. He says that “[Syrian refugees] are satisfied to be in the [Jordanian] refugee camps if the refugee camps are adequately funded. Recognize that in these camps they have schools, they have recreational facilities that are really quite nice. And there are all kind of things that make life more tolerable.”[3] Carson said he was told by refugees that they really just want to go home, so his conclusion is that they therefore shouldn’t go to the US. It is not clear what Carson’s position is on refugees in Europe or in countries such as Lebanon where due to a lack of camps, the situation is much less stable.

While supporting the idea of returning refugees home is understandable, it needs to be unpacked and criticized. The major difference between Trump and Carson is a fundamental misunderstanding (or intentional obscuring) of the term “refugee.” While Carson’s proposal would block refugees from entering the US, he would apparently support refugees in Jordan. Trump’s plan, on the other hand, would require the resettlement of refugees, and would effectively make them Internally Displaced People (IDPs).

Indeed, the 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”[4]

Trump’s plan would effectively force refugees to denounce their refugee status in order to become internally displaced. Displacement is actually the reason that many refugees have left Syria in the first place. It is difficult to imagine why someone would choose this option over a decent life in Europe or America.

Trump’s proposal directly violates the principle of non-refoulement. This is the concept that refugees should not be returned to an active war zone, or home country where they will not be safe. Article 33 of the Refugee Convention defines the rule of non-refoulement by stating that “[n]o Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”[5] The relevant portion of this article is the phrase “in any manner whatsoever.” Trump’s plan to create some kind of safe zone via intense bombing of ISIS is therefore not an acceptable method of returning refugees to their home country, and it clearly violates international law. This is particularly shameful due to the fact that the United States actually assisted in the drafting of the text of the Refugee Convention.

A deeper problem with Trump’s proposal for a safe zone is that it would artificially recreate the ethno-religious divisions that have so characterized the civil war in Syria. This proposal, when truly analyzed, shows contempt for existing scholarship and historical lessons. For example, a significant consequence of the wars in Bosnia and Iraq was that the fighting “resulted in far greater ethnic homogeneity,” meaning that areas which were formerly mixed became home to only one ethnic or religious group.[6] Effectively, Trump’s proposal would have the side effect of creating an unnecessarily complicated microcosm of the conflict, in an area devastated by bombings, with no economic prospects. The incentives for refugees to latch onto this proposal are non-existent. This doesn’t even begin to break down the logistical problems of resettling the more than 4 million Syrian refugees, and deciding who would be allowed or able to resettle. As a businessman, Trump should be able to see the flaws in his plan. As a politician, he should be criticized for a proposal which would violate international law in order to gain cheap political points.






[6] Fagen, Patricia Weiss. “Refugees and IDPs after Conflict: Why They Do Not Go Home.” United States Institute of Peace, Special Report 268, Washington DC, (April 2011): pg. 1-15.


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