Risk, Refugees, and the Politics of Blame: the US after the Paris Attacks

by Sophia Balakian

This guest post is written by Sophia Balakian, a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  She is writing a dissertation about the ways that security and humanitarian regimes intersect, and how refugees navigate complexly entangled state and non-governmental bureaucracies. She is a recipient of a Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Fellowship, and a Wenner-Gren Foundation Dissertation Fieldwork Grant. You can view additional details about her research here


SB3The November 13, 2015 attacks in Paris have reverberated across the world in complex ways.  France began a military campaign against ISIS, and EU countries are debating the future of their border and security policies.  Across the Atlantic here in the United States, the fact that at least one of the attackers was likely a Syrian who came to Europe with those fleeing the civil war has had perhaps the most salient impact on public discourse since the attacks.  But certain misinformation underlies the sudden anxiety surrounding refugees in the US.

Shortly following the Paris attacks, US politicians began calling for the suspension of the resettlement of Syrian refugees to the United States.  But the nature of the US refugee program appears to be poorly understood, and politicians have manipulated that misunderstanding.  I want to point out the distinction between the way that the Syrian national who took part in the Paris attacks entered France and the ways that Syrians come to the US through its refugee program in order to highlight the ways that politicians—including thirty governors that called for the halting of refugee resettlement from Syria, and the 289 Representatives that signed the Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act—have misinformed the American public and ignited fears of religious “others” both within and outside US borders.

Anxiety about distinguishing between war criminals and refugees is not a new one.  The Congo Wars of the mid-nineties to the early two thousands, which claimed an estimated 5.4 million lives, were precipitated in part by Rwanda’s pursuit of genocidaires who fled Rwanda along with Hutu refugees in 1994.  Saturday Night Live parodied this emerging anxiety in the US in their Thanksgiving show: “You know I heard the refugees are all ISIS in disguise,” says a father to his family seated around the holiday table, to which a relative replies, “Oh yeah, that’s true, I actually saw an ISIS in the A&P today when I was picking up the yams.”  The sketch parodies the way that politicians have recently used an exaggerated sense of risk to insight fear, garner political support, and convince the American public to support extreme ideas such as banning Muslim refugees, or even banning all Muslims from the country.


Since 2010, my research has focused on refugee resettlement policies and the ways that refugees—people displaced by conflict and unable to return to their home countries due to a well founded fear of persecution—make sense of, and navigate complex, transnational bureaucratic processes as they exist in the legal limbo of non-citizenship.  For a year and a half, I conducted fieldwork in Nairobi, Kenya, where the nearly half a million Somali refugees have consistently been targeted in security operations as fears escalate that Al Shabaab terrorists invisibly reside amongst the larger Somali population.  When US politicians and citizens alike articulate fear and anxiety about refugees, I hear a similar narrative unfolding here.  This narrative, as other critiques have already pointed out, is not new.  Rather, this is a manifestation of racialized xenophobia and border anxiety that has shaped immigration policies, and policies that have marginalized and surveilled Americans deemed “foreign” throughout US history:  The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the 1830 Indian Removal Act, WWII-era Japanese Internment, and the 2010 Arizona SB 1070 which produced a policy of profiling Latina/o Americans, to name only a few.

Drawing a connection between a Syrian national who perpetrated a devastating terror attack in Paris, and Syrians coming through the US Refugee Resettlement program demonstrates politicians’ xenophobia, but also their disregard for information, or their desire to use the absence of information for political gain.  As we know, fear is a powerful political tool.  Fear is a powerful social force.  But ideas about risk are socially constructed.  Our deepest fears don’t always match statistically significant dangers, and our ideas about blame don’t always correspond with real threats.

The US refugee admissions program has existed since the end of the Vietnam War.  The program has evolved over time, and since 9/11 has included more and more rigorous security protocols.  A collaborative process between the Departments of State, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services, the resettlement program brings several thousands of refugees to the United States each year as part of an effort that long enjoyed bipartisan support.  Each year, Congress votes on a number of refugees allowed to legally relocate to the US with a path to citizenship.  Congress voted to resettle 69,925 refugees to the United States in fiscal year 2015.

Let me give an example that illustrates what this process looks like: The Abdul family (a pseudonym), whom I met in Ohio while conducting fieldwork for five months in 2015, fled Somalia in the early 1990s and crossed the border arriving in a refugee camp in Kenya.  When their adult daughter gave birth to a severely ill child over a decade later, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) identified the family for resettlement.  The child’s illness, which could be treated abroad, made them a special priority for resettlement amidst three hundred thousand other refugees in the Dadaab camps.

UNHCR interviewed the Abdul family as a group and as individuals, checking their testimony for consistency with their original narratives from the time they entered the camp in the early ‘90s.  After about a year, UNHCR decided to forward their case to the US government.  When employees of the US State Department based in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, were able to travel to the camp, a trip delayed because of the camp’s insecurity, they interviewed the Abdul family, along with others referred to them by the UNHCR.  For security reasons, Homeland Security representatives were unable to travel to the camp to conduct final interviews, and thus, about three years after UNHCR initially forwarded their case to the US government, the Abdul family was relocated to another camp hundreds of miles away.  In the meantime, US intelligence agencies such as the CIA and FBI were running security checks on each member of the Abdul family—checks that would be re-run so they would be up to date by the time of the family’s departure.

Several months after arriving in the camp near the Sudanese and Ethiopian borders, Homeland Security representatives were able to fly from Washington to interview the Abdul family.  While security checks continued to be updated, they went through a series of medical screenings to ensure they would not bring communicable diseases into the US, and participated in a cultural orientation program.  Because of bureaucratic and security hold-ups, only four of them were able to leave Kenya eleven months after coming to the new camp, arriving in Ohio after twenty-three years in a refugee camp, both kids having been born there.  Following their cultural orientation and final medical screening in a special transit center in Nairobi, they boarded a flight booked by the International Organization for Migration (IOM)—the cost of which they will pay back in installments after finding jobs in the US.  The mother of the ill child, along with her husband and other kids, are still in the second refugee camp.  The sick child who originally prioritized the family for resettlement recently died.

Unfortunately, the only remarkable thing about the Abdul family’s story is that they were among less than 1% of refugees worldwide who will be resettled in a country that will grant them a path to citizenship. Given that rate, it is far from a sufficient solution to the world’s refugee crisis.  Asylum seekers arriving in countries where they have not been previously vetted should be treated with dignity and accorded their rights under international law.  But people arriving through the US refugee program have been vetted—and rigorously.   So when politicians equate a criminal who crossed European borders with refugees arriving through a painstakingly long and highly securitized US government program, their calls to shut down Syrian refugee resettlement is based upon a dishonest premise that seeks to stoke fear for political gain.  When Donald Trump and his supporters call for banning all Muslims from entering the United States, that lie extends to frightening proportions.

In a recent senate hearing about the refugee resettlement program, FBI Director James Comey stated, “I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.”  This statement has been taken up by those hoping to see the refugee program halted, including in recent Republican debates.  As anthropologists have long pointed out, conceptions of risk are cultural and political.  Heightened anxieties about certain kinds of dangers rather than others and compelling objects of blame are rooted in existing political landscapes, and hegemonic meanings of citizenship.  No one, after all, can offer “absolute assurance that there’s no risk” associated with anything.  Not going to a holiday party, church, class, a movie, or sending a kindergartner to school.

Global terrorism rooted in the Middle East, as well as terrorism perpetrated by white Americans, are fundamental problems of our time.  Global terrorism vexes immigration and humanitarian programs like refugee resettlement.  These are genuine conundrums that policy makers must reckon with as they make decisions that affect human lives and social values.  But in the wake of the Paris Attacks, in the wake of over 250,000 dead in Syria as the war nears five years, and after four million Syrians have risked their lives to leave their country, spotlighting the US refugee resettlement program as a threat to the United States misrecognizes the real issues, and uses refugees as a simplistic scapegoat.



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