Paris attack fallout: U.S. states refuse to resettle Syrian refugees

Syrians throw snow at each other at a refugee camp in Deir Zannoun village, in the Bekaa valley, east Lebanon, January 2015. (Credit: AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

This story has been updated to reflect the increasing number of U.S. states announcing refusals to resettle Syrian refugees.

More than a dozen U.S. states announced that they will not resettle Syrian refugees just days after an Islamic State attack in Paris killed more than 120 people. Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan and Gov. Robert Bentley of Alabama were the first of what could be many states (listed at the bottom) citing security concerns for their decisions. They join some European countries, including Poland, that are backing out of prior agreements to take in more refugees. The knee-jerk reaction in the wake of Friday night’s attacks will significantly affect the refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war and the brutal Islamic State.

With the grief from the brutal attacks in Paris still palpable, various groups and countries are looking for ways to react. France carried out airstrikes in the Syrian city of Raqqa, an Islamic State stronghold. President Francois Hollande called Saturday’s attacks an “act of war” and vowed that the country would be “unforgiving with the barbarians.” On the diplomatic front, the U.S. and Russia are working on establishing a cease-fire in Syria.

But the humanitarian facet of the Syrian crisis is overlooked. The tens of thousands of people fleeing Syria for security and asylum are once again sidelined or left behind. But as lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan show, development and relief are crucial to addressing both the immediate needs of people affected by war and to ensure that long-term fixes take hold.

The concerns for the two governors stem from a still-vague report that the passport of a Syrian refugee who passed through Greece was found at the scene of one of the suicide bombing attacks. Authorities have yet to verify whether the passport belonged to the attacker.

“I will oppose any attempt to relocate Syrian refugees to Alabama through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. As your governor, I will not stand complicit to a policy that places the citizens of Alabama in harm’s way,” said Bentley, in a statement released Sunday. “I will not place Alabamians at even the slightest, possible risk of an attack on our people.”

Snyder made essentially the same announcement and justification this morning, reports the Detroit Free Press. It is a reversal for a governor who said he was working with the U.S. government to resettle Syrian refugees after a photo of a drowned Syrian toddler on a beach sparked an international uproar. The uproar from the photo prompted President Obama to announce an increase to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year. Humanitarian groups said the pledge was one zero too small – pushing for a commitment of 100,000.

But reversing course does not help. France cannot stop every person from crossing its border. Keeping people in need out leaves them vulnerable and it creates a domestic climate that can give rise to racist and nationalist politicians.

“Sending Syrians back, tightening the border controls and bringing in stricter immigration policies will not solve what have become very French problems,” argues Durukan Kuzu, a political scientist, in The Conversation. “The route taken into France by one of these attackers is less of an issue than the route taken out by many more disillusioned citizens. France has marginalized its Muslim youth and some, as a result, have decided to join IS and return to kill.”

Greece remains one of the most popular ports of entry for Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe. Nearly 700,000 people have arrived there since January – some 72,000 in the month of November alone. More than 60 percent of the total people come from Syria and the totals increase with each month. European countries are struggling with the surge, particularly the point of entry areas, like Greece. Resistance by countries to resettle the refugees is a near-universal problem. Even Germany, whose government is welcoming refugees with open arms, there are reports of backlash among citizens.

“The days of uncontrolled immigration and illegal entry can’t continue just like that. Paris changes everything,” said German politician Markus Soeder. “The [Christian Social Union] stands behind the chancellor, but it would be good if Angela Merkel acknowledged that the opening of the border for an unlimited period of time was a mistake.”

Similar statements are being made in the U.S. Louisiana senator and gubernatorial hopeful David Vitter tweeted his opposition to Syrian arrivals in the state. But not all states are turning away, such as Delaware.

“It is unfortunate that anyone would use the tragic events in Paris to send a message that we do not understand the plight of these refugees, ignoring the fact that the people we are talking about are fleeing the perpetrators of terror,” said Gov. Jack Markell, in a statement.

Candidates running in the presidential primaries have made minor responses, but it is expected that Syria, the Islamic State, and refugees will be popular topics in the coming weeks.

States that will not accept Syrian refugees:

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • Florida
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Louisiana
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • Ohio
  • Texas
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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.