Saturday, January 23, 2016


Over significant internal and foreign opposition the Danish Parliament passed a law mandating Danish police to take valuable objects and cash away from refugees coming into the country from the Middle East. Denmark is trying to discourage refugees from entering their country. This latest episode in the refugee crisis confronts us once again the question of what we should be doing to help out.

During 2015, our country accepted about 2000 Mid-Eastern refugees--people fleeing Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya and other places in the region. For the coming year the US has promised to accept 10,000 more refugees. According to some estimates the total number of displaced persons in the Mid East is close to 4 million persons. Is our response adequate?

It seems clear that we have a moral obligation to help the refugees from wars in which we ourselves are actively involved. American planes are bombing Syria. American troops have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and brought great destruction to those countries. Our drones have been killing people in Pakistan for years. We are not only obligated to help people who are suffering terribly because, as human beings, we are obligated to help our neighbors. We are also obligated to help in this case because some of the refugees are the victims of our military actions. If your house burned down, you would expect your neighbor to put you up. If they suffer you expect to help them out.

But, of course, nothing is that simple. Asked to help refugees many people claim that this mass of humanity is not leaving the Middle East because they are driven out by war, because their houses and livings are destroyed, but simply because they want to live in Europe where the standard of living is higher. These are not victims of war, people say, but “economic” refugees. But that distinction only confuses the issue of what we should do about the refugees. Of course they are economic refugees because sustained bombing of their cities and villages by many different parties, the United States included, has deprived them of a way of making a living. Yes, perhaps they could continue to live where they are now if they were scavengers at the town dump, or resorted to thievery and other crimes. But should we stand by while they are forced to live at the very edge of starvation?

There are other commonly given excuses for not considering the plight of the  victims of wars, which we started or have actively participated in. There is the fear that these refugees will take jobs from those who live in the US at present. Is that a realistic fear? The answer to that question is not clear. On the one hand, most refugees coming to the US are not well educated and compete only with Americans who have no more than a high school education or less. As more American young people go to college there is a growing pool of unskilled jobs that immigrants already fill. At the same time every new person coming to our country not only looks for a job but also creates work. They need food, clothing, housing. Their children need places in school. Immigrants not only take jobs but also make work for other citizens.

Anyone who tells you that, without doubt, immigrants take jobs away from Americans has not given this matter any thought or tried to gain some information about this debate that has been going on in the US since the early days of our republic.

The argument that immigrants that arrive here untrained, without a knowledge of English will cost the taxpayers money is similar. It is by no means obvious that that is true. It is not certain that it is false either.

If we let in refugees from Syria, will terrorists use our generosity to sneak into the country to commit mass-killings? That is a definite possibility. How likely is it? We do not know. But consider this. Many Americans, fired up by the second amendment, are willing to incur the likelihood of more mass-shootings in order to retain every citizen’s right to own as many and as lethal weapons as they choose. Should we be more timid when it comes to following our moral duties to fellow humans in serious trouble and say that we will not risk terrorist attacks for the sake of being decent to some fellow human beings?

It is important to put the terrorism fear in perspective. “There have been only 38 Americans killed in the U.S. by Islamic terrorists, lone wolves, or whacked-out individuals professing allegiance to Islamic extremism, or ISIS, or al-Qaeda, since 9/11. Argue about the number if you want. In fact, double or triple it and it still adds up to a tragic but undeniable drop in the bucket. To gain some perspective, pick your favorite comparison: number of Americans killed since 9/11 by guns (more than 400,000) or by drunk drivers in 2012 alone (more than 10,000).”[]

The mass emigration from Mid-Eastern countries confronts us with a serious moral dilemma. But that is the character of morality: it is very rarely completely unambiguous what one must do. We owe each other support and respect but in most cases there are mitigating circumstances and we must make difficult choices.

But two things are clear with respect to the refugees. The sorts of things people say to absolve us from any obligations are often ill-considered. The opponents to being decent make up facts. They are just making excuses. 

In addition, the choice of what we must do is very difficult. There are at least three different considerations that drive us in opposite directions. On the one hand, there is little doubt that we must help our neighbors when catastrophe strikes them. We would expect the same from then. But, on the other hand, the masses fleeing from Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria are not by any stretch of the imagination our neighbors. In the third place, the plight of these masses of refugees is, in part, caused by the US military. We cannot bomb cities to rubble and then refuse to help the surviving populations.

As an immigrant myself, I tend to take the side of the refugees. But there are different sides to this question. What has been missing so far has been a discussion that is respectful of the complex relevant facts and conscientious about our moral obligations.