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The United States and the Global Refugee Paradox

Studienarbeit 2017 22 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Thema: Völkerrecht und Menschenrechte



This paper will have examined extensive literature from both academia and current news media to show the relationship between the United States Syrian refugee crisis and the European refugee crisis. The findings of the paper were that there seems to be a paradox in how the world views the human rights of refugees. The political right does not feel obligated to protect refugee rights, and as result the refugee is faced with a crisis in their own country of origin and the international community. The findings look at how social politics and political realism have influenced the leaders of the political right to have platforms that they have on the national level. The paper will show similarities between how Islamophobia and anti-semitism in the 1940s are very similar in terms of attitudes and policy. Therefore, the idea that the current anti-refugee sentiment is cyclical, just a new decade and a new group. The paper will focus on the distinction between the political left and right in both Europe and the United States in terms of their anti-refugee policy.


The modern day global crisis is not so modern when a careful study of the world history is conducted. The current global refugee crisis in the United States is very similar to many of the historical refugee crisis that the nation faced. Also, in terms of the politics of refugees it is very similar to the current European crisis. This paper will explore the depth of the similarities and depict how comparatively the Syrian refugee crisis in the United States is similar to the crisis on the global scale and many of the historical crisis we have seen. The paper will examine the theoretical, legal, social and political influences that are placed upon the issue of refugees. The paper will take literature from academia, and apply it to literature from current events in the news media. The paper will also look at public opinion in various years in the United States and some public opinion in European politics. The result of using this type of research methodology will allow for a better understanding of international human rights and the right of asylum. The right to asylum has always been on the premise of social politics, what this paper will show whether it is the United States or Europe, they us versus them argument prevails in understanding the motives behind anti-refugee politics. The paper will end with some suggestions that the international world can take in order to change the current refugee situation and protect the human rights of refugees.

Literature Review

The international world is always changing, but one thing that is clear is that history repeats itself often. This part of the paper will address the key fundamental issues in history that often repeats itself in regards to human rights and how that arises through the premise of both social and identity politics. The paper will address the human right of asylum according to the provisions created by the United Nations. The question of what is asylum and what protections does it provide will be discussed as well. Also, this part will discuss the debate of what asylum has meant and how it has changed historically. The theoreticals of what it means to seek asylum, which will lead to the discussion of who a refugee actually is. This discussion will incorporate how social politics has led to many refugees being denied the human right of asylum. The use of historical references of anti-Semitism as a source to show how social politics leads to violation of human rights. The paper will then go on to focus on defining one of the key themes of the paper which is Islamophobia. Islamophobia will be defined in order to eventually show the similarities in the research between historical anti-Semitism and modern-day Islamophobia and its impact on human rights and how the political right has used this notion.

The 1967 Declaration on Territorial Asylum is a quite interesting piece of international law. In it Article 14 paragraph one, proclaims that everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution. However, in the compromise that existed between the states; the declaration just states the right but it does not grant the individual the actual right (Goodwin-Gill 1). The distinction between the right being there and having the right granted to an individual is very distinct and important in practice. However, it is also first important noting how that decision was derived in the debate leading up to the ratifying of the declaration.

One of the arguments that existed during the discussion of the asylum was what words could be used in the actual law to define the legalities of asylum. Why this was important is because human rights are meant to be universal and are held by all human beings in the world (Donnelly 37). This implication is important for one reason if international human rights are binding then the words that define the law are crucial. According to the debate, some of the language was formulated in order to get more people on board. The language of the legislation was meant to the do the following:

It further agreed that the word “should” was appropriate to the preambular recommendatory paragraph (“recommends that... States should base themselves... on the following principles”), but that the word “shall” “should be used in the relevant operative paragraphs which, while not of a binding character, would be strengthened in their humanitarian purposes and have more persuasive value...” (Goodwin-Gill 5).

The purpose of this was so that the UN charter did not violate international norms. Norms are behaviors or shared expectations of what is deemed to be proper behavior. One norm that exist in international relations is the idea of sovereignty. Sovereignty implies the a government in theory has the right to do whatever it wants to do within the territory or jurisdiction of their government (Goldstein and Pevehouse 50). Therefore, in keeping with the norms the council tried to write language that would not impose laws that could violate the actor’s sovereignty. The issue that arises is what happens when people are seeking asylum in times of international crisis and refugees are seeking a new home from persecution.

Before the discussion of human rights and refugees can begin; refugees must be defined and then the discussion of how they have been treated can start. The first question that needs to be asked and answered is: what is a refugee. A refugee defined by Matthew Lister is someone:

we may say that a refugee is anyone whom a state has a moral duty to admit into itself, despite whatever other immigration policies the state in question may have, where this is a moral duty owed by the state, as a member of the international community, to seeking to enter, based on the need (Lister 647-648).

The issue with this definition is that it is a very good one but it indicates something problematic in nature. What may be moral does not have to be legal. Matthew Lister gives the idea of based on need, but that could imply that some groups may be ignored and others could be incorporated into society based on the people who may accept the refugee. As a result, when looking at the decisions of who gets in and who does not; scholars of the field must look at the subfield of social politics. The idea of how social ideologies influence the political effects on refugee acceptance for asylum.

“In the wake of multiculturalism, it has become commonplace to treat social justice first and foremost as an issue of identity” (Arfken 1). When identity is being discussed from a policy standpoint it is important to ask questions similar to what it means to be an American. The question is important for several reasons but most importantly if you look at American policy historically it gives the public a sense of what is driving this type of policy. There is a notion in American politics, of fear of differences or in this case fear of different identities. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 had language to the idea of reducing immigrants down to a point to bring the proportions similar to what it was when the republic was founded (Schain 205-206). The law was passed for the reason in maintaining the population to the way it was founded; therefore, resulting in the idea of groups that were not here in the 18th century were not welcome. This idea brings the central theme to the research presented in this paper and other pieces of literature. You will see similarities of how identity and bias against anti-Semitism influenced how the United States accepted refugees.

The first thing that needs to be discussed is the idea of what anti-semitism actually is. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, anti-Semitism is the “Hostility and prejudice directed against Jewish people; (also) the theory, action, or practice resulting from this” (Oxford English Dictionary 2017). Previously, it was discussed the idea of social politics and how American policies has had the notion to incline towards the idea of what it means to be American and frown upon another group. By definition, anti-Semitism is action that requires hate against Jewish people within society. Some literature in regards to anti-Semitism has had rhetoric and beliefs similar to this:

Clearly, for some officers, the various biological definitions of Jews cast them into the permanent state of otherness that could not, or should not, be transformed by Americanization and assimilation through culture, education, and experience. Assimilation risked racial degeneracy and the decline of higher civilization. On the other hand, not to assimilate Jews would leave this parasitic group as an insidious force pursuing its own distinct interests against the general welfare of the body politic. (Bendersky 428-429).

The rhetoric above demonstrates one of two things: the first being the idea of social politics, how much of an influence identity plays in policy decisions, and how this has impacted human rights. Rhetoric has had a substantial impact on how refugees have been treated in terms of having their human rights violated.

The Smithsonian magazine, has an article titled The US government turned away thousands of Jewish refugees, fearing they were Nazi spies (Gross 2015). That title points to something very important that identity politics in times of crisis heavily influences policy. The fear of bringing Nazi spies into American soil allowed for the individuals who were seeking to become refugees from Nazis in Europe to be be denied entry into the United States. The fear of a threat by someone who did not look the same as someone led to policies that violated the right to asylum. Therefore, being a refugee is not the choice of the individual but rather the choice of the government based on legal guidelines and political expediency (Immigrant America 31-32). The point being that the government can decide who they want to accept into the country as a refugee seeking asylum. That ideology is very troubling because as previously shown the impact of public opinion has allowed for the violation of human rights to exist in society. What the events that took place during this time shows is the level of which xenophobia influences the realities of how the United States allows who comes in and who does not. According to the Oxford english dictionary, xenophobia is the idea of deep antipathy to foreigners (Oxford English Dictionary 2017). This part of the paper will now shift its focus in discussing some important themes that will further this idea of the social politics leading to policy that will impact the idea of violating human rights.

Identity politics in America is always changing or if not developing. Currently, there is an increase in Islamophobia a set prejudices against the Arab culture and the Muslim faith (Dalrymple 18). One of the first things to note about Islamophobia is that it is very similar to anti-Semitism. Both of these ideas targets a group of people as being inferior or as not being able to coexist with the group that is targeting them. The similarities between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism will be more apparent through the research that will be conducted.

The research thus far has shown how identity politics has led to the violation of human rights. The current research done allows for the case study of how the current United States atmosphere politically deals with Islamophobia and its impact on refugees. This paper will take the current research already done and draw parallels with between anti-Semitism during world war II and modern day Islamophobia. This paper will eventually show how the American public opinion towards people of different social and cultural groups leads to the violation of human rights is not an issue of the past but it is a recurring issue that society faces even today. To show how the anti-refugee sentiment is real the paper will discuss the politics behind the current refugee crisis in Europe.

Discussion - The European Refugee Crisis

In the 21st century, a new humanitarian crisis has taken shape that has impacted the way the world looks at refugees and responds to the issue. But what the research has shown is that the current way of looking at refugees has always remained the same and the crisis is not “new”.

Then what makes the current refugee crisis much different than the other crisis that have been seen in world history. In order, to get a better understanding of what is happening in the world, this paper will briefly discuss historical public opinion in the United States and show the relation that it has to the refugee crisis in Europe today. The paper will show the theme that the us versus them argument is very prominent both in American politics and European politics in the modern day and historically.

According to Gallup polls, who have conducted public opinions polls throughout every American refugee crisis since the year 1939 or refugees trying to enter the United States from Germany [children]. That poll showed that 26% was in favor of allowing refugees into the United States, while 67% was in opposition. In the 1946 poll, which addressed the issue of Jewish refugees and President Truman asking Congress to allow for more refugees into the United States - 16% was in favor of Truman’s proposal, while 72% was in opposition. In the issue addressing the refugees from Kosovo [1999], 66% supported allowing refugees, while 30% was in opposition. The interesting part of this crisis was when the responders were asked to open up their homes 39% were in favor of doing it, while 57% were in opposition (Newport 2015).

The relevance of this data is to show that the anti-refugee sentiment has existed for decades. That what the world is seeing today is just part of the anti-refugee cycle. Therefore, in order to understand what is happening in Europe one must understand the public opinion that exists in Europe that has led to the humanitarian crisis that is present today.

Public opinion in France for example has been quite interesting for one reason. That initially you see that the public is less favorable to a new wave of immigration coming in, but eventually becomes more favorable as time progresses (Schain 72-73). On the broader context, this has many implications. According to Pew Research Center, countries like Poland, Greece, Hungary, and Italy have majority opinions on the premise that they believe that refugees from Iraq and Syria are a threat to their nation. While Germany has a public opinion of 31% in opposition to refugees and Sweden has a 24% public opposition to refugees. Both of these countries have taken in vast amounts of refugees into their country. Also, it is important noting that 8 out of 10 countries in the European Union who were surveyed thought that refugees were a threat were on the spectrum placed on the political right. While, those in favor of refugees were on the political left of the spectrum (Poushter 2016). Public opinion is important when trying to understand the refugee crisis that the world is seeing today. The way that the public views the refugees influences the type of policies that are being implemented by the government. So the question that arises from this is what is actually causing the humanitarian crisis that the world is seeing today.

Over the last decade, the world has seen conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa region on the rise. The refugee crisis has escalated into a situation where it has become a humanitarian crisis that is a direct violation of the human right to asylum. To gain some perspective on what is actually happening:

In 2014, at least 160,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Italy and 40,000 in Greece, while 3,400 died at sea. As of 31 August, the number of people crossing the Mediterranean this year already exceeds 300,000 including 200,000 to Greece and 110,000 to Italy; 2,750 people died or went missing at sea. On 19 April an estimated 850 people from Eritrea, Syria, Ethiopia and West African countries on a single boat, drowned north of Tripoli. Europe, as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) puts it, is ‘living through a maritime refugee crisis of historic proportions’. As we grapple with this, three challenges are particularly salient, analytically and politically: the war on human smuggling; the dichotomy between economic and forced migrants; and the nativism conditioning institutional responses (Albahari 1).

The idea behind this is that the world is seeing that their is a refugee crisis but in many cases due to the issues present at the nation in which these refugees are traveling to, you have seen the increase in the number of deaths as a result of this. What makes this problematic is because there seems to be an issue on both fronts.

While it is apparent there is a refugee crisis, what seems to be troubling is the fact that this humanitarian crisis has created a paradox for the victims of the violence. If the situation in Syria is used as an example in order to depict this paradox, the important thing to note is what actually is happening in the state of Syria. Hundreds of thousands civilians are and thousands of being forced to escaped the horrific violence that they are facing due to the civil war, civil unrest and government abuse in the entire middle east. Also, it is important noting that in Syria that half of the population is threatened due to the violence and lack of food (American Journal of Public Health 2015). That is the apparent paradox, that these refugees are trying to escape violence in order to find themselves in a situation where many of them are dying on boats or many of them face anti-refugee violence in the land that they are migrating too.

Another way that this paradox exists is through the actions of the European Union. Many of these refugees are migrating into the European Union in order to escape governmental abuse. However, the institutional responses by the European Union has been to constantly move them around. September, in the year 2015, the European Union voted to move approximately 160,000 refugees EU-wide but this mainly applies to those that are in the countries of Italy and Germany (BBC 2016). These institutional responses have a policy basis to the idea of how do the countries respond to the current crisis that they are in. Therefore, in order to get a better a understanding of what is driving such a paradox, a better understanding of the rationale behind the policies is important to note and understand.

One of the many driving forces of refugee policy is on the premise of political ethics.

This idea that the policy in which nations like the United Kingdom is basing their decisions on morality that is reflected in self-interest. The underlying question that resonates when the idea of migrants or refugees is discussed is what do nation-states owe to non-nationals (Brannan, Campbell, & Davies 2016). The significance of this rationale is the idea within international relations of realism.

In international relations, the school of thought realism looks at power through the lens of power and self-interest (Goldstein & Pevehouse 43). Realism in policy has shown in the refugee crisis to have devastating repercussions. Therefore, the claim must be made that when realism is involved in politics the result is what the world has seen in the refugee crisis today. This is especially apparent when Jack Donnelly, makes the claim “the demands of morality often do conflict with the national interest defined in terms of power” (Donnelly 30). Therefore, the paradox will always be present in the decisions by institutions when they are directly influenced by realist agendas. The paradox that exists in the current refugee crisis, has existed throughout world history as the literature review discussed in regards to the United States not allowing Jewish refugees into America.

The purpose of this discussion is to examine the significance of the refugee crisis in the international world today. The idea that the refugee crisis is not only an American problem or just an European problem but rather a global issue that needs addressing. The data shows that there has always been on an international level some sort of negative attitudes towards refugees. Therefore, the paradox has existed for most of the 20th century and has continued to exist in the 21st century. Current policy that is based on realism is considered by most institutions to be rational. However, when the statistics show that current policy to be ineffective by which it leads to a large scale humanitarian crisis that the world has seen, then the rational thinking becomes irrational. Realism is more apparent in the way the international system is set up. According the international law, no country is legally obligated to resettle refugees and only a few states offer resettlement on a regular basis (Ostrand 258). The way the international system is designed is to ensure the state’s own sovereignty. Therefore, in order for a humanitarian crisis on this large scale not to happen ever again their needs to be an international consensus on refugees and how they would treat refugees in the future.

So the important thing to note in general from this paper is to understand that the refugee crisis that the world is seeing, is not unique. It has many precedents throughout world history. Therefore, the United Nations needs to take charge and understand that this refugee cycle which is ultimately a paradox needs to be put to an end. This would then require the world’s leaders to become less realist, but the issue then arises for the leaders if the their constituents are in majority for the opposition of allowing refugees into the country. This is apparent today, when the world sees Germany and Sweden taking in vast amounts of refugees, while France takes in minimal number of refugees as a direct result of public opinion. It is clear the real issue here, is just the same issue discussed in the literature review, that the political right in terms of social policy is less hesitant to allow refugees, versus, the social left which allows more. This difference on the spectrum should be alarming when for example the far-right party in France the National Front gains the largest electoral score in history (BBC 2016). Therefore, the current implications indicate that the world is dealing with refugees crisis in a way that they shouldn’t. The self-interest of countries tend to lead to immoral behavior within the political world. This idea of self-interest can also be seen in how the United States has responded to the refugee crisis today.

The United State’s Refugee Dilemma

To understand the dilemma that has happened in regards to the syrian refugee crisis one has to understand the public’s attitude towards them. The Pew Research Center in one of their reports find that:

The U.S. cap on refugee admissions was raised to 85,000 this fiscal year from 70,000 in fiscal 2015, largely to accommodate the planned increase in Syrian refugees and, more broadly, help deal with the influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants from that country,

Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere into Europe. In a Pew Research Center survey taken in September, Americans narrowly approved of that policy shift (51% to 45%), though it’s unknown whether public opinion has shifted after the Paris attacks (Desilver 2015).

The findings from the Pew Research Center can help better understand that the politics of a refugee crisis has similar trends on the international scope. In the previous, part of the paper it was mentioned that the political right was less inclusive of refugees in society. Similar, in the United States it was clear through the research that Republican governors or leaders the political right were in opposition to the entry of the refugee’s into the nation.

Therefore, one assumption from the research that can be made is that there is a relationship between the political right and anti-refugee policies. The reasoning behind it could be explained by understanding public attitudes. A CNN/ORC poll in 2015 finds:

Partisan divides emerge when considering whether the U.S. should take in some of the refugees. Overall, 55% favor that and 44% oppose it. Most Republicans are opposed (55%) while Democrats (65%) and independents (55%) are mostly in favor. Those who think the U.S. bears some of the responsibility for the crisis are more apt to favor taking in refugees, with 71% in that group saying they favor allowing refugees to come to the U.S., compared with just 35% of those who say the U.S. is not responsible for the crisis (Agiesta 2015).

Why does public opinion matter in terms of refugees? In the United States, the electoral system in local and state elections is on the basis of a single-member plurality system. A single member plurality system is the following, “Voters in a single member plurality election cast a vote for one candidate. The candidate receiving the most votes wins” (FairVote 2017). The public elects the official that will make the legislative policy. Therefore, if a majority of republicans do not approve of allowing refugees into the country, then the political elite will follow suit in order to maintain their incumbency. Therefore, the argument can be made that the anti-refugee sentiment in the political elite is on the basis of realism. The self-interest is for the political elite to maintain policy that will allow the leader to maintain in power, not facts. The media has depicted the argument of the political right. Fox News states that:

[Ann] Coulter warned that it can be very dangerous for a country to bring in people who have no interest in assimilating. What are we getting out of this? Coulter asked. It’s one thing if we’re bringing in nuclear scientists or engineers. I don’t think we’re getting a lot of those. But the vast majority of refugees are just instantly coming in, sucking up welfare that’s meant for our people (Fox News Insider 2017).

However, the argument presented by the political right is not factual. The CATO institute which is a conservative think-tank in their research presents:

Of the 859,629 refugees admitted from 2001 onwards, only three have been convicted of planning terrorist attacks on targets outside of the United States, and none was successfully carried out. That is one terrorism-planning conviction for every 286,543 refugees that have been admitted. To put that in perspective, about 1 in every 22,541 Americans committed murder in 2014. The terrorist threat from Syrian refugees in the United States is hyperbolically over-exaggerated and we have very little to fear from them because the refugee vetting system is so thorough (Nowrasteh 2015).

Therefore, the rationale presented by the political right and its influence on policy is not on the basis of facts but on the basis of realism. Therefore, this results in the paradox that was noticed in Europe as well. From the previous, parts of this research it was clear why the refugees were seeking asylum. However, the politics and public attitudes in the United States creates yet another paradox. The refugees are escaping the horrific acts from where they are coming from to either be rejected or face resentment from the political right. Therefore, the research shows that the there needs to be a different approach to how the world deals with refugees. The similarities between anti-semitism and Islamophobia are heavily present when the literature is from the 1940s is looked in the media and how Ann Coulter speaks about the Syrian refugees. The political right in terms of social politics will always violate human rights.


One of the problems that the the world has faced in the 21st century is a new refugee crisis. The Syrian refugee crisis as the research has shown when looked at comparatively, the current sentiment by the public is similar to anti-semitism and the refugees of the 1940s entering the United States. In the modern context, the United States Syrian refugee crisis is very similar to how the European political right views refugees in their nations. The crisis and the response from the international community in itself is a direct violation of human rights. As the literature review discussed the right to asylum is granted to all people but nations are not legally obligated to abide by the laws. Therefore, after analyzing the political behavior behind the reasons why the a nation would have anti-refugee sentiments, two common themes were apparent. These two themes are: realism, and social politics. Political elites try to use realist rhetoric as a response to public attitudes that are resulted by social politics.

Therefore, the suggestions that this paper can in regards to further prevention of any violation of human rights is to tell world leaders to implement policies that are less on the premise of realism but more of the interest of the refugees. What this is asking of political elites is to look beyond electoral victories and look at the facts for the sake of human rights. Another way that human rights violations could be avoided is if the case study of Europe is used, then it was apparent that the political right is less lenient in comparison to the political left. Therefore, with the basis of the research the conclusion can be made that in terms of refugees and their human rights violations being abused it is a very right or conservative approach to politics. In conclusion, the future of refugees and how they are treated is contingent on whether or not the political left is on the rise or the political right. However, with the new administration in the

United States, under Donald Trump, the future of refugees currently is unknown but if the research in this paper is accurate, then the prediction could be made that the refugee crisis is not going to be solved under this administration.


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ISBN (Buch)
1 MB
Institution / Hochschule
City University of New York John Jay College of Criminal Justice
refugee crisis




Titel: The United States and the Global Refugee Paradox