Over the past few weeks, we've received a lot of questions, mostly from our supporters here in Memphis, about the refugee crisis and the current debate in the United States of accepting refugees from the Middle East. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam is one of several governors across the country who has expressed concerns about having refugees resettled in their state.
This is not an official statement from our organization, just some thoughts on the issues based on our experience with refugees in Sudan and South Sudan.
Why Is There A Global Refugee Crisis?
A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee their country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. More often than not, they cannot return home or have valid reasons to be afraid to do so.
It is true that the bulk of refugees in the current global crisis are fleeing Syria and Iraq. Both the Assad regime in Syria and the terrorist group known by a plethora of acronyms (ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, etc.) are major contributors to the current mass exodus of people groups coming to Europe. Many of these groups, such as the Yazidi people, have faced a genocidal slaughter for over a year at the hands of these terrorists. The death toll would be far higher today had the United States not intervened at Mount Sinjar in August 2014.
But refugees are also fleeing out of many other countries such as Sudan, Eritrea, and Libya. Many of these people groups are facing targeted killing and terrorism as well. In Sudan (where we work), a brutal dictatorship has murdered over 2.5 million people over the course of 2 decades and supported both national and international terrorist groups. Sudan is still ranked today as one of the world's greatest crises, although you almost never hear about it.
Today's refugee crisis has actually been brewing for several years. An international failure to challange some of the world's worst situations (i.e. genocide, war crimes, mass terrorism) in sustainable ways has only compounded the situation. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the number of refugees and internally displaced people has reached its highest point since World War II.
There is a global refugee crisis because the world has failed to challange the reasons why so many people are refugees in the first place. Sadly, this also means that the refugee crisis is just beginning and will most likely grow even larger.
Are Refugees A Threat?
The past several weeks in Tennessee, and many other states, an ongoing debate about why, if, and how many refugees the United States should accept has taken a very negative turn. This is partly due to the United States being in the middle of a Presidential race and candidates on both sides using the refugee crisis to shore up their own support bases. In any other year, the refugee debate would still be politicized, albeit most likely not to the degree it is today.
This debate has centered almost entirely around the issue of national security. In the wake of the cowardly terrorist attacks in France and Lebanon on November 12-13, the refugee crisis has been directly linked by politicians to the attacks in France. While the Paris terror attacks appear to have been partially coordinated by Islamic State operatives in the Middle East, all the identified terrorists are so far European citizens. This suggests that their radicalization was likely homegrown on the continent, and not imported via an exodus of beleaguered Syrian refugees.
What is missing from the debate then is who these refugees actually are. They are fleeing the very acts of violence and people committing them that so many of us are scared of. The bombings in Paris lasted for a day, but for many of these refugees, they have been facing bombings, mass killing, and terrorism every day for the past several years. They are the most victimized victims. At this moment, many of them have no safe haven.
I've spent a lot of time with refugees overseas as well as here in the United States, and not just with people from Sudan. It never ceases to amaze me how much alike they are to Americans. I actually can't recall a conversation I've had with a refugee in the past several years in which I wasn't told all they wanted was a safe community to live in, a job so they can take care of their family, and for their kids to get a good education. If that sounds like life for many of us here in the United States, that's because it is.
With that in mind, imagine yourself as a refugee fleeing war and violence. You know you aren't a threat to anyone, but a lot of people are saying that you are a security problem. You're willing to go through the elaborate refugee processing system that takes a minimum of 18 months and be part of the most heavily vetted group of people currently allowed into the US according to the State Department, but many Americans don't know how frustrating and lengthy that process is. And because they don't know, they think anyone can be declared a legal refugee in just a few moments.
Sounds lonely and unfair, right?
Refugees aren't terrorists, and more importantly, the hardest way for a terrorist to get into the United States would be to attempt to pose as a refugee. The refugee vetting process is lengthy, frustrating, and hyper-detailed to make sure only the most vulnerable can come to the United States. Fearing the victims instead of the perpatrators is not the answer. It isn't right to punish thousands of people seeking a safe haven due to the extremely low chance of a single terrorist somehow evading detection in what is a very stringent vetting system.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, one of the world's leading institutions on issues of genocide, war, and refugees, recently released a statement reminding us that our country once rejected Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. We all know the results of that, and dealing with the current refugee crisis in the same way will have similiarly catastrophic results.
The leaders of the so-called Islamic State are banking on Europe and the United States to reject refugees. What seems almost certain is that the Islamic State wants us to believe refugees are unsafe. It also wants refugees to believe the West hates them and doesn't care about their plight. If both of those happen, we will see hundreds, if not thousands, of refugees who once detested the Islamic State joining their ranks because we rejected their aspirations for freedom and security. Simply put, if we don't accept refugees with open and loving arms, they will slowly be pushed back into the murderous arms of the Islamic State. And in that world, you either join them, support them, or die.
Compassion isn't weakness. It takes courage, resilience, and determination for a community to properly resettle and integrate refugees. When we see through the cultural differences, language barriers, and skin color, we see people just like us. The only difference that matters is that they have lost everything and we haven't. Withholding assistance and love when we have plenty to provide isn't the answer. Being compassionate is.
Will Memphis Receive More Refugees From The Middle East?
This is still unclear, athough historically Memphis has been a destination city for refugees. Many Tennessee lawmakers have pushed Governor Haslam to work towards ensuring that no Syrian refugees are sent to our state, although legally it is questionable at best if state governments can reject refugees.
Regardless, being prepared for an influx of refugees is the right step for our community to take. We also already have a large refugee community in Memphis you can get involved with now. Our friends at Choose901 have a great blogpost up about how you can get involved on this issue. LEARN MORE HERE »
About Operation Broken Silence
Our organization has been doing media, emergency relief, education, and advocacy work with Sudanese refugees and IDPs (internally-displaced persons) since 2012. We're one of the few international nonprofits to actually put staff and volunteers on the ground in Sudan's Nuba Mountains, at great risk to ourselves since that is an open warzone. We're frequently sought out by other nonprofits for advice and guidance and are known for giving a voice to those impacted by Sudanese government war crimes and terrorism.
If you'd like to get involved with our work in assisting the Sudanese people, CLICK HERE »