Refugees Aren't Sharks (Sharks Aren't Even Sharks)

Author’s Note: I wrote this article before the current administration instituted an Executive Order that targeted 7 Muslim-majority countries which not only affects current refugees in need of safety but also barred legal residents from re-entering the United States. In light of the new policy, I have to say that this article is too light-hearted, but I think it is still worth sharing because of the point it makes about fear and how irrational fears inform our behaviors and our policies. The current Executive Order is illegal under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, it reflects a profound misunderstanding of our laws at the highest level governance, it bars legal residents from accessing their homes and families, and it reminds me of old war-time, fear-based policies like Japanese Internment (which we have tried so desperately to write out of our history books). It is not comparable to policies that affect the issuance of new visas, or even political sanctions like those that have affected travel and immigration from Cuba or Iran in the past. It is a bad policy. It is not in our national interest. It is not based on statistics or facts. It is a stain on American history that we will have to explain to our grandchildren. (Just, you know, to be clear about where I stand on the issue). Of course, the policies that I describe in this article have now changed or are currently changing. If you want a good breakdown of the new executive order, this article from The Atlantic explains pretty clearly. I also cite this report a lot in this article and it is always being updated in light of new policies, so keep up here.

           Have you ever heard that super fun factoid that people love to share at parties: “More people are killed every year by coconuts than by sharks”? If you haven’t, well, now you have. The whole thing started in 2002 when a semi-famous shark researcher stated that coconuts kill 150 people per year compared to the average 5 people that are killed by sharks. I can neither confirm nor deny whether or not this is true, but some countries did remove coconut trees from beaches to keep them from killing people. Maybe coconut trees were pretty threatening all along. Maybe the whole thing was an urban legend, but now I am off-topic and far too deep in the abyss of coconut-related lore. My point is this: shark activists try to give us some perspective on the real threat that sharks pose to humans so that we might realize they’re not that dangerous and start supporting more efforts to save sharks (seriously, this isn’t the point of this article, but do save the sharks). Anyway, all of this reminds me of the way that people think and act toward refugees.

           First of all, let me say that I am in no way trying to directly compare refugees, who are human beings that are facing some of the most difficult circumstances on earth through absolutely no fault of their own, to sharks (or skittles for that matter, looking at you Trump, Jr.).  But, in the same way that an irrational fear of sharks blinds us to the real issue of their conservation, our irrational fear and misunderstanding of refugees keeps us from doing all that we can to support our fellow human beings in their time of greatest need. I don’t have any coconut facts to compare with refugees (which would honestly feel too similar to the whole skittles-tweet situation that I mentioned above) but I can share some actual facts that might assuage perceived fears.

           Recently, the Obama administration created a plan to admit more refugees over the next few years. In 2016, the U.S. allotted for 15,000 more refugees than we have accepted in the past, taking the number from 70,000 to 85,000 with a plan to admit 100,000 in 2017. Of the 15,000 additional refugees the U.S. planned to take in 2016, 10,000 of those spots were reserved specifically for Syrian refugees and the remaining 5,000 were primarily intended for individuals fleeing violence in Central America. This decision has led to a lot of claims that refugees are somehow dangerous to our society.

The main argument here is that by opening our doors to refugees, we simultaneously open our doors to terrorists. While that argument might seem logical, here are the facts: of all jihadist terrorist attacks committed in the United States since 9/11, the largest group of terrorists are actually U.S.-Born Citizens. Further, although Americans usually interpret “terrorism” to specifically mean “jihadist terrorism” we are also seeing a rise in the number of terrorist acts by extreme right or left wing groups. In fact, until the tragic Orlando shooting, there were actually more individuals killed by right-wing extremists than by jihadists on American soil.

I don’t want to dwell too long on the ideologies or motivations behind terrorism, but I do want to point out that of the almost 800,000 refugees we have admitted in the last 15 years, three were arrested for planning terrorist attacks, one of which was essentially a non-credible plan and two of which were planned attacks outside of the U.S. I don’t want to get into an argument about which people group is more dangerous than another, but I want to point out that people, whether they are from the United States or not, could potentially do something horrible; No refugee policy can eliminate that threat.

It is also important to note that the process of acquiring refugee status in the United States takes 18-24 months and applicants undergo significant security screening. While asylum-seekers must be physically present in the country to apply for asylum, refugees apply for their status before ever entering a country. So, the U.S. is able to screen many individuals before they ever arrive in the country because of its physical distance from many of the world’s conflict zones. While it is not uncommon for asylum-seekers to make their way to the U.S., there are far fewer asylum-seekers than refugees. We also have to consider that policies to deter migration often have incredibly detrimental effects (i.e. massive numbers of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean). As Michael Clemens, a leading economist on the impacts of migration, argues, people are going to move. No one will stay in a conflict zone because they value their own life and the lives of the people they love (seriously, what would you do?). Basically, we must create policies to smooth the transition or the situation will continue to deteriorate. The problem only gets worse when countries with greater capacity, like the U.S. or U.K., deny refugees and force them to overflow in countries like Lebanon, where there are roughly 230 refugees per 1000 people. Again, Michael Clemens makes a fantastic point when he argues that we can benefit from refugees when we assist them and empower them to find employment, rather than thinking of them as a burden.

I could write for days about this topic. Ultimately, refugees are human beings in need of assistance. In the future, it could just as easily be us or our grandchildren that are fleeing conflict. If the tables were turned, what would your expectation be? I won’t deny that there are challenges; there are security challenges, cultural challenges, economic challenges, and about a million other things we have to consider. But to completely write off other human beings because we have made them out to be some horrible monsters in our minds is cruel.

Our fears about refugees are like our fears about sharks. The mythical man-eating “shark” of our imagination does not align with the real sharks living in our oceans. In the same way, the terrorizing, threatening refugee that we have created in our politics and our media does not look like the real human refugees of our world. So, sharks aren’t really “sharks” and refugees aren’t either. Ya feel me?

I’ll also leave you with this passage from Matthew 25.

“‘For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
           Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirst or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’
           And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’”