4 Arguments Against Accepting Syrian Refugees and Why They All Fail

by Benjamin Studebaker

Over the past few days, the public debate has turned toward the question of Syrian refugees. I’ve been wandering around the internet, reading the different arguments people have for refusing to accept refugees, and I have found all of them wanting.  So today I’d like to run through the most common and pervasive anti-refugee arguments and the reasons they fail.

As I see it, there are several kinds of arguments people give against taking refugees:

  1. Security Arguments–the refugees pose a security risk to western societies that justifies rejecting them.
  2. Scarcity Arguments–the refugees will consume resources that are already in short supply (e.g. money, housing, etc.), and that justifies rejecting them.
  3. No Benefit Arguments–we only have duties to accept refugees where this benefits us, and refugees are not beneficial.
  4. No Responsibility Arguments–we are not to blame for the political conditions in the Middle East that have caused these people to be refugees, so we are justified in rejecting them irrespective of the benefits or harms involved.

To start, I’d like to offer a theory of when states have a moral obligation to accept immigrants and refugees and when they do not. As I see it, states should accept applicant who is willing and capable of reciprocity with the society that he or she joins. This reciprocity can be hard (i.e. economic or material benefits) or it can be soft (i.e. social or psychological benefits). States are justified in rejecting applicants who are not capable of reciprocity because accepting them would have exploitative consequences. So for instance, if a refugee or immigrant were coming to a country to commit acts of terrorism or to exploit that country’s welfare state or healthcare provision with no intention of making hard or soft contributions, a country would be justified in rejecting that refugee or immigrant. If a refugee or immigrant is coming to contribute labor or consumption or admitting the individual is important to extant citizens and will make them happy, this gives us an obligation to admit that refugee or immigrant so long as there is no countervailing exploitation. This is a relatively conservative framework–it allows states to make refugee decisions based on whether or not admitting those refugees is beneficial to their extant citizens without regard for the independent moral value of the refugees. Nevertheless, I can show that we should admit refugees operating within these theoretical constraints. Let’s run through each of our four argument types.

Security Arguments

Donald Trump is perhaps the most prominent person making a security argument:

Contrary to what Donald Trump says, the current American plan is to take 10,000 Syrian refugees this year along with 75,000 from other countries. In the following year, the US will take 100,000 worldwide, and again only some of those will be from Syria. In ordinary years, the US often takes a significant number of refugees from around the world. In the 1970’s, the US took 500,000 from South Vietnam. The refugees are vetted both by the federal government and the UN in a process that takes 18-24 months before they are admitted. As a result of this, refugees are statistically extremely safe. Since the September 11 attack, the US has accepted 745,000 refugees from around the world. Zero of these refugees have been arrested on domestic terrorism charges.  This means that refugees are less likely to engage or attempt to engage in domestic terrorism than ordinary American citizens. This jibes with previous research indicating that immigrants are 80% less likely to be incarcerated than native citizens.

Since native citizens are 5 times more likely to commit serious offences, increasing the percentage of immigrants and refugees in our society actually makes the average person less likely to engage in criminal activity and makes our society proportionally safer and more law-abiding. So the security argument abjectly fails–refugees and immigrants are significantly less likely to sympathize with ISIS or commit other crimes than native citizens. Indeed, because increasing the proportion of the population that is non-native reduces the crime rate and the terrorism risk, there is a strong security argument for accepting more refugees and immigrants than we presently do.  This may strike folks like Donald Trump as incredibly counter-intuitive, but this is why we do statistical research in the first place–to see whether or not our preconceptions, stereotypes, and assumptions are correct. In this case, popular intuitions are completely mistaken. The relationship is the opposite of what most people expect.

Scarcity Arguments

We also see it argued that we cannot afford to accept refugees because they are expensive and will compete with native citizens for finite resources. This argument relies on an assumption that refugees and immigrants contribute less economically to western societies than native citizens do. If refugees and immigrants made contributions that are about even with native citizens, scarcity arguments would necessarily imply radical population control measures to prevent additional babies from being born. Most people who make refugee arguments do not see each additional infant that comes into the world as a burden on society–we see our children as the future, as beings that will make significant contributions and consequently as worthwhile social investments. So scarcity arguments necessarily rest on the claim that there is something specific about refugees and immigrants that makes them unworthy as investments.

This argument flies in the face of the evidence we have concerning the economic contributions of immigrants. In the United States, foreign born residents are estimated to contribute almost $19,000 more in tax receipts each decade than they consume in government benefits:

This means that refugees and immigrants more than pay for their own public services. We do not have to worry about schools being overcrowded with foreign children, because foreigners will contribute more than enough revenue to pay for additional teachers and classrooms. We don’t have to worry about immigrants and refugees scrounging for welfare benefits, because they will work and be net contributors to the tax system on average.

Now, there’s a more sophisticated form of the scarcity argument that holds that while it may be true that in the long-term, refugees and immigrants are cost-effective investments, in the short term there is a significant up front cost. Government estimates indicate that the immediate short-term cost of resettlement will be about $16,000 per refugee over a four year period. For the 10,000 Syrian refugees under consideration this year, that amounts to a total cost of $160 million over four years, with $40 million to be paid this year. If these refugees contribute as much as other immigrants do on average (many of whom are low skill undocumented immigrants from Latin America), the government will still make a net profit of about $3,000 per immigrant over the next decade for a gain of $30 million. In subsequent decades, those gains will be larger. The median Syrian is 23 years old, which means that more than half of Syrian refugees will continue to make significant positive economic contributions for four or five decades. This means that they should do at least as well as ordinary immigrants when it comes to generating revenue gains in subsequent decades. These Syrians will also have children who will make new contributions to America’s future. Even when we consider the up-front investment, Syrian refugees still look like very good investments.

One particularly bizarre variant of the scarcity argument I sometimes see looks something like this:

This is deeply misleading because it presents you with a false choice–the government could certainly do both of these things. The US government budget for 2015 is $3.688 trillion. The cost for 2015 of taking in Syrian refugees is $40 million. This amounts to 0.001% of the federal budget. Farm subsidies cost 500 times more. The development of the F-35 Lightning II cost 32,500 times more over the course of its lifespan. There are plenty of government programs that are less worthwhile, less efficient, and far more expensive than taking care of both Syrian refugees and homeless veterans. These folks are creating a false dichotomy between spending on vets and spending on refugees to manipulate folks into opposing refugees for no good reason.

No Benefits Arguments

In the course of the previous two discussions, we have answered the no benefits argument. We’ve shown both that refugees and immigrants are a positive economic investment for society and that refugees and immigrants help create a safer society with lower crime and incarceration rates. But even if refugees were neutral on both of these respects, there would be a significant social and psychological gain from admitting refugees because there are significant numbers of Americans who feel deep moral and psychological commitments to refugees irrespective of any economic or security advantages or disadvantages they have. Many of these people are motivated by deeply held religious or moral philosophical beliefs, such as those expressed in Matthew 25:35-40:

 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

These people of conviction have a social and psychological interest in accepting refugees. If the refugees were exploitative, if there were significant economic or security losses we would incur from accepting them, those concerns might outweigh these social and psychological benefits. But since we have shown that refugees are at least neutral if not positive on economic and security grounds, the convictions of these people give our government another reason to admit the refugees.

No Responsibility Arguments

The no responsibility arguments have two key problems, either of which would be sufficient to dismiss it:

  1. It is false to claim that we had nothing at all to do with the conditions that caused these people to become refugees, as the rise of the Islamic State was facilitated both by the Iraq War, which created regional instability and created a regional safe haven for terrorists, and by our efforts to arm moderate Syrian rebels (IS managed to seize many of the weapons we sent).
  2. Even if it were true that we had nothing to do with these refugees’ situation, we have independent reasons to accept the refugees–they will make our society safer, they will pay their own way and even contribute a net surplus in tax revenue, and they will help many people of conscious in our society self-actualize and act in accordance with their religious and moral principles. The question of whether or not we are responsible is a red herring and is irrelevant to the question at hand.

I can successfully demonstrate the reasonableness of accepting refugees within a theoretical framework that explicitly only provides grounds for accepting refugees if they are willing and capable of reciprocity and will not exploit our societies either deliberately or inadvertently. I’ve set very tough standards for proving that refugees ought to be entitled to enter, and they’ve met those standards. Many people would go much further and claim that these refugees have independent moral value and that we have duties to them even if they don’t reciprocate and will exploit us. You don’t have to believe that to believe that we should take these refugees. They are good for our security and our prosperity, they do reciprocate, and we are better off accepting them even if we do not take their moral value into account at all.