Before dawn on September 2, in Bodrum, Turkey, 16 people — mostly refugees from the civil war in Syria — boarded a tiny boat meant to only carry eight people. Just minutes after the craft set sail for the island of Kos, in Greece, they hit choppy waters. The captain fled, jumping overboard, and the refugees aboard the boat could not prevent it from capsizing. Hours later, bodies began to wash ashore, and Turkish photographer Nilufer Demir started to snap pictures — including the now-infamous image of 3‑year-old Alan Kurdi, face down in the sand.
The civil war in Syria has lasted more than four years and displaced 11 million people. Four million have left the country. Some now reside in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Kurdistan; others have made it to Western countries, where they are not even guaranteed asylum. Others still have perished in dangerous sea voyages: The U.N. estimates that 2,636 Syrians have died crossing the Mediterranean this year alone.
In the days since the photograph of Alan Kurdi’s tiny drowned body went viral, countries across the world have opened their borders, increased their immigration quotas and begun serious efforts to address the refugee crisis. Germany, already a champion of the refugee cause, announced it can accept as many as 500,000 migrants a year for several years; Hungary is now bussing refugees from its borders through Central Europe; France will take in 24,000 Syrians over the next two years; and the UK will admit 20,000 over the next five.
While these latter numbers may sound paltry, they are still gigantic in comparison to the American commitment, when measured as a percentage of population. Since the start of the crisis, the United States has admitted 1,500 Syrian refugees and now plans to admit an additional 10,000 next year. This represents 0.003 percent of the population, or one refugee per 31,890 U.S. citizens. Comparatively, Germany will accept some 800,000 refugees by the end of the year, new estimates predict — almost 1 percent of its total population, or one refugee per 100 Germans.
The United States has a moral obligation to admit vastly more Syrian refugees. This is, in part, because every country must step up during a humanitarian crisis of this scale. But more importantly, this is because the U.S. has fueled the refugee crisis in more ways than one.
Many Syrians are fleeing the violence caused by the war between the Assad regime and the Syrian rebels — rebels whom the United States has funded and armed.
Others are seeking to escape the brutality of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). America is widely cited as the unintentional creator of ISIS, which is now the first, second or third largest armed force operating in Syria, depending on whom you ask. The Islamic State first gained traction in the area shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Though the U.S. officially opposed ISIS, some U.S.-supported rebels have in turn begun fighting for ISIS, and some U.S.-provided weapons have ended up in ISIS’s hands when it seized rebel outposts.
Even before ISIS erupted onto the world stage in December 2013 with its invasion of Iraq, it had perpetrated attacks against ethnic minorities and generally enforced a reign of terror in the regions under its control. Yet rather than seeing ISIS as a threat, the U.S. was so laser-focused on fighting Assad that 2012 Pentagon report spoke warmly of the “possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality” — precisely what ISIS did. “This is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition [i.e., the United States and its allies] want in order to isolate the Syrian regime,” the report read.
By not only unintentionally providing the circumstances for ISIS’s founding, but also welcoming its development as a Sunni counterweight to Assad, the United States exacerbated the refugee problem.
According to Time, in a single 72-hour period, more than 130,000 Syrians fled across the border to Turkey as ISIS advanced on the town of Kobani. Yazidi minorities are fleeing ethnic cleansing — some 40,000 were chased from the town of Sinjar in Iraq in 2014.
Though the U.S. is pouring billions of dollars into humanitarian funds, this simply isn’t enough. No amount of money can completely address the stark human cost of the refugee crisis. What’s needed is a place for refugees to stay.
For the United States to admit only 10,000 out of four million is cruel. When you take in the fact that America caused this crisis, that many of those four million refugees were chased from their homes by an armed militia that the United States helped to create, that cruelty turns to utter inhumanity.
One reason the United States admits so few is because immigration policy demands background checks be performed before any asylum seekers enter the country. These checks can take up to two years, and is not uncommon in the West. Germany, however, has made an exception for Syrian refugees, saying it will perform background checks after admitting them. Realistically, these refugees do not represent any sort of terror threat.
Regardless, what right does the United States have to reject refugees on safety grounds? It was supposedly in the interest of America’s security that Iraq was invaded and that Syrian militias were supported. Pursuing these interests led to the displacement of millions, the impoverishment of tens of thousands and the deaths of thousands, many more children like Alan Kurdi among them. Now the United States would, while still trying to preserve its own safety, leave these refugees with no place to go.
The Statue of Liberty, that much vaunted symbol of freedom and welcome, bears the inscription:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Today, the golden door is closed to all but a paltry few Syrians. The tired, poor and huddled masses will just have to wait until their background check is processed.