Washington’s cynical use of refugee children

April 11, 2017

Nicole Colson examines the cruel hypocrisy of an administration that cynically exploits the plight of Syrian refugees, even as it consigns them to misery and death.

NO, DONALD Trump did not suddenly grow a conscience and a soul and begin to care about the slaughter of Syrian civilians.

The naked cynicism of Trump's rhetoric as he announced U.S. airstrikes on the Shayrat Syrian Arab Air Force base last week was apparent to anyone who's been paying attention.

Invoking the horrifying loss of life resulting from the Syrian government's use of sarin gas against civilians, Trump declared that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack."

But Syria's "helpless men, women and children" have been dying for years and desperately pleading for safe passage to Western nations, including the U.S. Rather than welcoming the "beautiful babies" and the Syrian families fleeing "barbaric attacks," however, Trump has seized every opportunity to whip up racism and Islamophobia against refugees--scapegoating an already embattled population as a terrorist menace.

Syrian refugees are met by aid workers in Greece after crossing the Mediterranean
Syrian refugees are met by aid workers in Greece after crossing the Mediterranean (Ben White | flickr)

First on the campaign trail and then in office, Trump has repeatedly called for "strong borders" and "extreme vetting" of those seeking refuge in the U.S. While he's expressing sorrow for Syrian babies today, in February of last year, he declared at a campaign rally that he would have no problem looking Syrian children "in their faces and say[ing] 'you can't come,'" because "we don't know where their parents come from...They may be [members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria]...It could be a Trojan horse."

Around the same time, Donald Trump Jr. even compared Syrian refugees to poisoned candy: "If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful? That's our Syrian refugee problem."

Less than 100 days into Trump's presidency, he has twice attempted to ban those seeking to enter the U.S. from Syria and other majority-Muslim nations. In making his case for the revised travel ban last month, Trump and others in his administration repeatedly--and without any evidence--claimed that more than 300 people who entered the U.S. as refugees were the subject of counterterrorism investigations.

But as the Washington Post pointed out, to put that in perspective, that number represents just one-fifteenth of 1 percent of refugees admitted from the six countries targeted by Trump's revised travel ban since 9/11--and it's not clear what, if any, charges have ever been brought in any of these investigations. Further, according to the FBI, in 2016 there were at least 1,000 open investigations into "homegrown violent extremists."

All of this underscores Trump's hypocrisy: You can't demonize those fleeing warzones as a terrorist menace in one breath and use that as continued justification for policies that put their lives in danger, but then turn around and use their suffering as an excuse for war in another.

As Syrian-Canadian writer Yazan al-Saadi bitterly commented on Democracy Now!:

[Trump's] playing a game. He's playing a game...

I'm sorry, but when he's talking about the cruel suffocation of babies--right?--this is a man that doesn't mind these babies drowning on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea with their family trying to escape the horrors of Syria. This man doesn't mind bombing places in Iraq, where hundreds of people have died. This man doesn't mind supporting Saudi Arabia, the world's most embarrassing country, in its slaughter of Yemen. This man doesn't mind making a deal with Bashar al-Assad, a revolting tyrant, in order to fight ISIS. So, I can't really take him seriously...

AT THE end of March, according to the United Nations, the number of refugees who have fled Syria officially passed the 5 million mark--with another 6.3 million displaced internally within the country's borders--a staggering number given the country's pre-war population of more than 22 million.

Among the 5 million who have escaped the country is Yasmine Mashaan, a pharmacy technician from the town of Muhassan in eastern Syria. Mashaan, who now lives in Germany, was forced to flee with her five children in fear for her life. Her brothers and husband had been arrested and tortured at various points during the conflict--and four of her five brothers were eventually killed (three by Assad's regime and another by Islamic State forces).

Mashaan told the New York Times that Trump's newfound sympathy for the plight of the Syrian people rings hollow. "It would be great if [Trump] continued this in the direction of saving more civilians or establishing a safe zone, but after his racist speeches and anti-refugee policy, I think the strike is more for popularity," she said.

In fact, even as Trump continued to talk about the plight of Syrian babies, administration officials defended his smearing of refugees as possible terrorists. When questioned this week, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley declared on CNN's State of the Union that Trump's military response was "compassionate," but couldn't explain the continued refusal to allow in refugees.

When host Jake Tapper incredulously asked Haley, "Certainly you don't think Syrian children pose a risk to the American people?" she responded, "Well, Syrian children have to come with Syrian adults. And you don't know. It's hard to know based on the vetting process."

EVEN DEMOCRATS--who overwhelmingly cheered Trump's use of U.S. bombs against the Syrian regime--brought up the hypocrisy of Trump's attacking Syria to ostensibly save civilian lives while denying refugees entry into the U.S.

Chief among them was Hillary Clinton--long an advocate of increased U.S. military intervention in Syria--who, at a political event in Texas on April 7, said that she hoped the Trump administration would "recognize that we cannot in one breath speak of protecting Syrian babies and in the next close American doors to them."

Clinton's words ring hollow. The Obama administration, it should be pointed out, was hardly welcoming of refugees, Syrian or otherwise. In 2015, when the images of Aylan Kurdi--the Syrian toddler who drowned along with his mother and brother in the Mediterranean--shocked millions around the globe, the Obama administration accepted a total of just 1,682 Syrian refugees into the U.S. In 2016, just 12,587 refugees from Syria were admitted to the U.S.

These are pitiful amounts considering the millions who have been forced to flee. The world's richest country--whose economic and military policies are a major contributing factor to the largest ongoing refugee crisis since the Second World War--should be doing far more to aid refugees, including opening its doors to those fleeing the violence.

Clinton in particular deserves to be singled out for her own hypocrisy regarding refugees. The failed presidential candidate who today is criticizing Trump for "closing the doors" to Syrian children showed little concern for the plight of refugee children when, in 2014, she advocated closing U.S. borders to children fleeing violence in Latin America.

"They should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are," Clinton said of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. border. "We have to send a clear message: Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn't mean the child gets to stay. We don't want to send a message that's contrary to our laws or will encourage more children to make that dangerous journey."

Today, it's imperative that activists put the plight of refugees front and center--and refuse to allow racist and Islamophobic scapegoating to go unchallenged.

But as Bashir Abu-Manneh put it in a piece for Jacobin magazine, simply being for the rights of refugees and calling for them to be let in also is not enough.

The left needs to not only call for an end to the U.S. imperial policies that cause so much suffering in Syria and beyond, we also must support the right of ordinary Syrians to determine their own fate--including their right to rise up against Assad's brutality:

Being contra-empire and pro-refugee is not enough. It is simply unacceptable to stand by and see a brutal regime like Assad's get away with emptying Syria of its own people. Syrians have a right both to live and to live freely in their homeland. No regime should be allowed to massacre its own people or force them into a life of permanent exile and displacement.

If the answer to Israel's colonial persecution and dispossession of Palestinians is to help Palestinians stay in their homeland and fight for their rights, then the same solidarity principle should apply to Syrians.

Do open your borders to the wretched of the earth, but also stand in solidarity with the fight for their rights in their homeland.

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