Striking a Balance: Fear, Compassion and the Refugee Crisis

Russ Pierson ’17 evaluates the refugee crisis and emphasizes the need for the West to not only accept refugees, but to assimilate them into their populations.  

The homegrown terrorist attacks of the past year, such as those in Paris and the San Bernardino, highlight the need to identify and address the root causes of homegrown terrorism, both in Europe and here in the United States. There are large Muslim populations, especially in France and Belgium, who live in communities that have been subjected to economic, social and physical isolation. Homegrown terrorist activities, specifically the attacks of the last year, are a shocking demonstration of the extent to which we have failed to integrate refugees. Recognizing that we have failed in the past should not be an excuse to reject refugees; we have decided as a society that it is our moral and legal imperative to give shelter to innocent civilians who face persecution at home. In order to fulfill our moral and legal obligations while avoiding the violence of the past year, we must take the necessary steps to economically and socially integrate those displaced by conflict.

To achieve this goal, policy makers must allow migrants to work upon arrival and integrate migrant children into existing schools. This will be a difficult task because most newcomers will not speak the native languages of the countries to which they are fleeing. Immigrants should be provided housing in existing communities, language lessons and job training to facilitate integration. Doing this will be expensive but necessary, because migrants are more likely to become isolated and violent when they are sequestered into camps or slums for extended periods of time.

Many fear that migrants will drag down economies and school standards but their relatively high level of education indicates their impact will be positive. Another fear is that migrants will not observe some cultural norms, especially free speech and sexual liberalism. The sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany over the new year have been used to portray migrants as criminals and sexual predators. It must be mentioned that migrants are no more disposed to commit crimes than natives.

Allowing refugees to work upon arrival and putting in the effort to integrate them is worthwhile because it diffuses the jihadist portrayal of the West as anti-Islam. The European-born jihadists who carried out the Charlie Hebdo and November Paris attacks lived in, and based their attacks from, poor, isolated migrant communities within France and Belgium. It has been widely reported that these communities are subjected to racism, poor public services and economic discrimination. Jihadist propaganda seeks to convince Muslims that they are not welcome in a Western society that is hostile to Islam. This criticism resonates with Muslim expatriates experiencing alienation in European and U.S. communities, particularly among young men. Forcing new refugees into economic and social isolation plays into this narrative that European and American populations consider them second-class citizens or likely terrorists. Embracing refugees as equal members in a civil society is the best way to combat homegrown terrorism.

Governments and societies in the EU and the U.S. stand to benefit if newcomers find education, employment and friendship upon arrival. The ongoing nature of regional conflict, the saturation of many regional refugee-accepting countries and the magnetism of prosperity mean that Europe and the U.S. must prepare to accept and integrate refugees at an unprecedented rate in the near future. Europe and the U.S. are in desperate need of young workers to stave off population decline and the effects of a slowdown in productivity growth. An influx of educated hardworking migrants will revitalize stagnant Western economies if they are successfully integrated.

At the end of the day, it is a moral imperative for the West to accept refugees. Europe and the U.S. are still haunted by the memory of their inaction in the face of the holocaust, and the genocide in Rwanda, the last humanitarian crises of this scale. The West must address the threat that jihadism poses without allowing fear to overcome compassion. The best way to address the threat of jihadism is to treat newcomers in a way that effectively neutralizes the jihadist worldview. This will require hard work, open minds and a lot of money, but it is worth the investment. If the West embraces migrants with open arms it will reap the economic and cultural rewards. If the West chooses the path of racism and rejection, the jihadist narrative of cultural conflict will be affirmed at terrible cost.

By: Russ Pierson ’17

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