In his address to the nation after ordering strikes on Syria last week, President Donald Trump pointed to the failure of the international community to resolve the Syria conflict and, uncharacteristically for him, to the humanitarian catastrophe it has spawned.
“As a result,” he said, “the refugee crisis continues to deepen, and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.”
After years of working on refugee issues inside and outside the government, we were surprised to find ourselves agreeing with Mr. Trump on the link between years of relentless violence in Syria and the destabilizing refugee surge.
Unfortunately, even as the president increased United States involvement in this conflict — motivated, his aides say, by his personal revulsion at images of “beautiful babies” choked to death by some of the planet’s most heinous weapons — his administration continues to deny sanctuary in the United States to victims of the same war. Mr. Trump twice signed executive orders, currently blocked by federal courts, that would bar Syrian refugees from the country.
Asked if President Bashar al-Assad’s attack with a lethal nerve agent that killed nearly 100 people, or the first direct American military strikes against the Syrian regime, might soften the administration’s approach to Syrian refugees, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, made clear “that wasn’t discussed as any part of the deliberations.” Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, suggested in response to a question on Monday about assisting Syrian refugees that military action was “the greatest aspect of humanitarian relief that we can provide.”
Even more incongruously, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that recent developments somehow portend a return to normalcy that could soon allow Syrians displaced by the conflict — an estimated 11 million people — to return home.
What seems more likely is that images of children foaming at the mouth and video of 59 Tomahawk missiles launching from the decks of American warships will have the opposite effect — causing more Syrians to flee, discouraging returns and exacerbating what is already the gravest humanitarian crisis on the planet.
Furthermore, refusing to take in more refugees even as the United States’ role in the conflict deepens goes against our nation’s long history of leading the world in responding to refugee crises, and particularly those to which our own actions contributed.
Between 1975 and 1995, the United States accepted more than 800,000 Southeast Asians fleeing violence unleashed by the Vietnam War. In the 1990s and early 2000s, about 146,000 refugees from the Balkans arrived after United States military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. After invading Iraq in 2003, the United States responded too slowly but eventually took in 120,000 Iraqi refugees, and another 18,000 Iraqis through a special program for those who assisted the United States in the war.
In each of those cases, the United States resettled far more refugees than any other country; and rightly so, given our direct involvement in the conflicts and our capacity to help. Thus far, the United States has provided more humanitarian funding than any other country. But of the 130,000 Syrians resettled in third countries after fleeing the conflict to one of Syria’s neighbors, the United States has accepted only about 18,000.
Turning away from our historical leadership on these issues provides no relief for those who need it most. Those people include a family of four Syrian refugees currently in Jordan that our organization is trying to help. The father is a survivor of torture; his two sons are of Syrian draft age and both suffer from extreme anxiety and seizures. They lived a simple lifestyle in Homs — the father was a shopkeeper — until the day their house was bombed, causing one of the sons to lose his hearing. Knowing Syria was no longer safe, they fled to Jordan in 2013.
The family had completed their resettlement interviews and medical checks, and were fully approved for refugee resettlement in the United States when President Trump signed his first executive order in January, putting their resettlement in limbo. Mr. Trump’s revised order places a 120-day freeze on all refugee admissions and slashes the overall refugee resettlement number to 50,000, from 110,000. Departures have ground almost to a halt. The family has no idea what is going to happen to them or where they can go, and they are extremely anxious about their future.
In a refugee crisis this large, resettlement to a third country is, of course, only one tool at the disposal of nations seeking to help — the vast majority of those people must be assisted where they are. But the Trump administration has demonstrated a similar disdain for other means of assistance, including by seeking to slash the budget for agencies like the State Department that administer it.
In declining to do more, Mr. Trump is violating a principle he has long championed — that the burden of addressing global challenges must be shared. Just as he has pressed NATO allies to spend more on defense, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany might well have been tempted, during her Oval Office meeting with Mr. Trump, to demand that he resettle some of the quarter million Syrian refugees currently applying for asylum in Germany.
The Trump administration has said, while presenting no evidence, that its draconian response to the crisis is justified by the threat refugees pose in the United States. Hundreds of national security experts from both parties and a series of federal court decisions disagree.
But no one, including, it now seems, Mr. Trump himself, disagrees about the human tragedy unfolding in Syria. Shocked by that reality, the president shifted his position on United States military action virtually overnight. Whatever one thinks of his decision, it was encouraging that Mr. Trump is capable of changing his views when confronted by compelling facts. If his newfound outrage is genuine, he should also reverse course on his unconscionable refugee policy.
Jon Finer was chief of staff to former Secretary of State John Kerry and is a co-founder of the International Refugee Assistance Project with Becca Heller, the group’s director.