When Politics and Ethics Collide: The Question of the Syrian Refugees

During this past summer of 2015, I, along with twenty-seven other colleagues in education from various locations around the United States, spent two weeks studying the legacy of the Holocaust by walking the grounds of seven concentration camps along with a multitude of museums and memorials. By doing so, I not only enhanced my understanding as to how the Holocaust occurred, but also the continuing shadow it extends across not just German or even European history, but of global events. My feet shared the same soil once trod upon by both Nazi aggressors and innocent victims, murderous soldiers and terrified prisoners, and through those two fleeting yet vastly profound weeks, I came to understand why the world must act in greater concert to assist the refugees of the Syrian civil war. The world has witnessed genocides since the end of the Second World War and too often the countries with the means to assist chose to either minimise or ignore their responsibilities. Now, seventy years after the liberation of the death camps that paralysed the world with the realisation of just how sickening our own depravity can be as human beings, there is an opportunity to salvage decency and demonstrate a compassion that has been too sorely omitted from the recent past.


The loudest call against the acceptance of Syrian refugees has come from conservative politicians in the United States and Europe, fearing that a steady flow of refugees would ultimately invite elements of radicalised Muslims who would establish cells in their new nations. In Washington, DC, Republican Michael McCaul of Texas, Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee believes that allowing Syrian refugees into America would create ‘a federally funded jihadi pipeline’.i However, statements such as thus, repeated in the United Kingdom as well, only encourages a misguided fear of Muslims and the oversimplification of all Syrians as potential terrorists. Certainly no nation can have revolving doors along their borders, and all sovereign countries have the right to uphold their laws and protect their citizens, but the hordes of people desperately fleeing a blood-soaked nation ripped by civil war, strife, and the presence of the most dangerous terrorist organization in the world are not those looking to bring harm: they are simply looking to rebuild their lives. As the weather in Europe sees the fading warmth of the summer sun and the onset of winter, the lives of those in need of escaping Syria will only continue to deteriorate. The old, the very young, the sick, and those becoming sick from exposure to alternating environments of extreme heat and cold and in desperate need of assistance, but politicians from Washington to Budapest attempt to politicise a situation that is far more humanitarian than partisan.

However, while refugees face border closings in Europe and hand wringing in America, the wealthiest nations in the Middle East have not opened their doors out of fear, and this cannot be ignored. Of the twenty-three million people who once inhabited Syria, nearly half has been either internally or externally displaced due to the ongoing civil war.ii The small, already crowded nations of Lebanon and Jordan found themselves overwhelmed by refugees by the summer of 2014 and had to close their borders, seemingly leaving an opportunity for the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other oil-rich, financially soluble countries in the Gulf to step in and rectify this humanitarian disaster.iii Sadly, no doors were opened and thus far, despite some financial donations, the Gulf has missed an opportunity to utilize the wealth and resources within their nations.


As during World War Two, when waves of Jews were attempting to escape the nightmares of Hitler’s Third Reich, rumours about the potential dangers of accepting large throngs of people were commonplace. The anti-Semitism of the 1930s and 40s has been replaced by Islamophobia today, with bigotry masked as national security. What remains consistent is that while governments stand down, atrocities continue, and the West cannot merely rely upon aid organizations, as committed and talented as they may be, to solve this crisis. Assisting the Syrians requires a unilateral effort across governmental, humanitarian, and party lines to understand that the hundreds of thousands looking for asylum are not hardened warriors seeking jihad but are families hoping to rebuild. If governments use fear of the unknown as an excuse to withhold assistance, how will they explain away the images of suffering and death soon to emerge as refugees wander throughout Europe in a desperate fight for survival? What the world is witnessing transcends politics, religion, and governmental policies to speak directly to the issue of human compassion and decency. The victims of the Syrian civil war did not cause that war nor did they invite the founders of the Islamic State into their homeland. The Syrians are currently undergoing a devastating migration of despair and the world stands on the precipice of either salvaging the lives of millions or allowing them to become mere footnotes in the annals of history’s suffering. What cannot be tolerated is a zone of indifference that spreads across the West and blames national security concerns as an excuse for inaction.

I am troubled by the fact that the world needed an image of a lifeless three year old Syrian boy cradled in the arms of a Turkish police officer, a drowning victim as his family attempted to flee the chaos of their homeland, in order to galvanize empathy and support for Syrians. However, the challenge for Western leaders is how to handle the Syrian crisis when it no longer holds the position of banner headline in newspapers, leads news broadcasts, or is the primary topic of debate to fill the necessary time slots in a twenty-four hours a day news cycle. The Syrian crisis cannot merely be a popular Instagram or Facebook topic that is ultimately replaced by the next catastrophe to capture the attention of people for a few hours or days. The Syrians are human beings; not numbers, but parents, siblings, elderly, and infants that are striving to rebuild their lives. Ignoring their dilemmas would be a nightmarish act of inept moral leadership. As James Fallows of The Atlantic argues, if America shuts her doors to Syrians, it is akin to ‘outsourcing our conscience to oil sheiks and mullahs’, and this is a lesson to be heeded by other nations of significance.iv The decision about Syrian refuges is not be made as a concession or simply to avoid a negative comparison with nations the West deems as morally inferior, but because empathy for those who are in desperate situations is a hallmark of Western republicanism.

Even the promise of intense screening has not been enough for some Western politicians. The United States has only allowed fewer than 1,000 refugees into the country, which is a startling contrast to the over 120,000 Iraqis who currently live within American borders as a result of the Iraq invasion of 2003.v Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was blunt in his condemnation of Europe’s failures in the crisis, saying:

The European nations that have turned the Mediterranean into a grave for immigrants share the sin for each immigrant’s death. It is not only immigrants who are drowning in the Mediterranean, it is also our humanity’.vi While it is difficult to not become emotional when looking at the faces of those struggling to find asylum, leaders should focus less on condemning governments for being cautious and implore them to utilise all available resources in the name of saving lives. Leaders must also be held accountable if they simply rely on stereotyping Syrians as possible terror threats as a mean of avoiding larger responsibilities.

The threat of terrorism is very real and must be considered as a substantial priority by nations around the world, but to continuously allow Syrian families to struggle to find dignity because governments do not want to work to find answers is inexcusable, and this holds true for lands from the West and Middle East. Society remains horrified today by the images of lifeless corpses stacked up in mass graves of liberated concentration camps, and collectively, the world must never soften its vigilance against forces looking to sponsor atrocities. It should not have taken images of a lifeless three-year old Syrian boy to alert the world’s most influential nations that the Syrian calamity is worthy of definitive action. The United States and United Kingdom should not have been placed in the position to announce increases in the number of refugees they would accept; these two countries should have been the primary leaders from the opening weeks of this tragedy before the suffering became nearly unimaginable. However, it is not too late for a positive outcome.


From Cambodia, to the Balkans to Rwanda, the world has missed on too many occasions to offer aid and assistance to those in need. Handling the Syrian question appropriately will obviously not cleanse the mistakes of the past but may offer a template for more effective remedies in the future. What must be remembered about these refugees is that they are not a mass of faceless numbers to be tallied but human beings in need of opportunity. Speaking with Lola Grace, founder of the Middle East Children’s Institute, an organisation working to educate Syrian refugees in Jordan, she noted that the youngsters travelling among the refugees simply want stability. They desire an education but have often not been in school for years and are embarrassed about a lack of knowledge and scarred by the trauma experienced in their homeland.

Currently, MECI has schools in Ramtha, Irbid, and Al Salt (all in Jordan), and is working to provide a future through educational opportunities. By educating the whole child through a range of classes from mathematics to music, these schools offer inspiration and a desire to not only rebuild a young life, but to thrive as an individual. These children are either the future leaders of the Middle East or the potential building blocks for future extremism. Education provides opportunities for greatness and a path away from the anger, frustration, and desperation that allows youth to be swayed towards lives of destruction and hate.

However, MECI is similar to many other humanitarian organizations: massive in spirit but limited in size. Global change needs the support that only governments can provide. Perhaps Western leaders should see for themselves what refugees are experiencing, take lessons from aid organizations, and ignore the punditry in order to reclaim a more human understanding of this situation. By doing so, when historians look back upon the struggles of the Syrian refugees in the early years of the twenty-first century, they will see that empathy trumped fear.

i Galyon, Shiyam. Syrian Refugees are not a Terror Threat. 29.6.2015. www.america.aljazeera.com.

ii Edmunds, Donna Rachel. Muslim Countries Refuse to Take a Single Syrian Refugee, Cite Risk of Exposure to Terrorism‘. 5.9.2015. www.breitbart.com.

iii ibid

iv Fallows, James. Martin O’Malley is Right: America Should be Taking More Syrian Refugees. www.theatlantic.com. 9.8.2015.

v Fishel, Justin and Levine, Mike. US Officials Admit Concern Over Syrian Refugee Effort. 8.9.2015. www.abcnews.go.com.

vi Parkinson, Joe and George-Cosh, David. Image of Drowned Syrian Boy Echoes Around World‘. 3.9.2015. www.wsj.com.

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