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Talking about the Syrian Refugee Crisis

November 20, 2015

It’s almost Thanksgiving — and for many people, it’s just the start of a whole slew of holiday gatherings. Goodness knows there will be plenty of opportunities to get into arguments discussions with family and friends about the Syrian refugee crisis. We’ve compiled a few talking points below that you can use for more productive discussions at the dinner table — or on Facebook, for that matter. (You can also check out a more in-depth PDF version and view online updates about what UUSC is doing specifically to help refugees).

PS. Not sure how to have conversations like this? Explore Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry, from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Jump to sections below:

The Syrian refugee crisis

  • There are more than four million registered Syrian refugees — a number that is expected to rise to 4.2 million by the end of 2015. More than three million of these refugees are women and children.
  • In addition to the number of refugees, at least 7.6 million people have been displaced within Syria. Without assistance, internally displaced people often become refugees. Ethnic and religious minorities are especially at risk.
  • It is illegal in Jordan, Egypt, and most host countries in the region for refugees to work. Educational opportunities are greatly limited. While some children are able to take part in informal education and primary school programs, there are few opportunities for refugee youth to attend secondary or higher education.

Moral responsibility for protecting refugees

  • Refugees need safety, and Europe more than ever needs to step up and coordinate the reception and registration of arriving refugees to ensure that security concerns and needs for protection are being met simultaneously.
  • The United States must do its share, even in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. The United States should demonstrate moral courage. The utter disregard for human life should provide our leaders with even more impetus to help the Syrian people fleeing and so in need of international protection. The definition of moral courage is to resist allowing fear to overwhelm our humanity.


  • Refugees are not terrorists. We must recognize that refugees from Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere in the Middle East are survivors attempting to escape extremist violence and daily terrorism inflicted on innocent residents there. They are not the participants and perpetrators.
  • Rejecting refugees will make us less safe. Ignoring the plight of refugees, who can be potential allies, and denying them safe haven will drive them back to Syria. There they will face the dangerous regime of Bashar al-Assad that they fled in the first place. Some refugees, in a desperate search for any safety, will seek out ISIS as an ally against Assad.
  • Traditional law enforcement and security screening processes have a proven record of handling the threat from terrorist posing as refugees. In the wake of the Paris attacks, U.S. agencies said they will deepen and tighten their refugee investigations even further.
  • The Syrian civil war and the barbarism of ISIS have killed more Muslims than members of any other faith.

Halting anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiment

  • We must speak out to stop the rising waves of anti-Muslim and anti–Syrian refugee sentiments occurring in the United States and globally.
  • President Obama is leading the call (uusc.org/nytimesarticle) to stop destructive anti-Muslim and anti–Syrian refugee rally cries.
  • Stay true to our values. When tested by a terror attack, we must stay true to our core values: freedom, equality, and the right to pursue happiness. We cannot allow ourselves to succumb to the attackers by abandoning our principles.
  • Now is not the time to abandon our civil liberties. It’s the time to reaffirm them. As U.S. residents, we should reaffirm the freedom of all people to worship any religion, to assemble, to speak freely, and to not be afraid. We cannot allow these attackers to provoke a response that takes away what we most hold dear. We all have the right to hold conversations in the privacy of our homes without the government listening in on conversations.
  • We must support and defend the rights of all people, even as we grieve for Paris. Hate crimes and threats against Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Americans are already at the highest they have been since 9/11.
  • We have a responsibility to speak up and challenge rhetoric that singles others out based solely on their religion or heritage; to stand up for the rights of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Americans when they come under attack; and to reject those who seek to exploit this tragedy for political gain.
  • There is a temptation, when struck by terror or by grief, to lash out at anyone presumed to be an enemy. But refugees seeking to escape from terrible violence should not be blamed for the actions of the murderers in Paris and our Muslim American neighbors should not be subject to prejudice and violence.

Refugee resettlement

  • The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has made an appeal for resettlement of 130,000 Syrian refugees worldwide in 2014–2016.
  • As of June 2015, UNHCR has submitted 13,586 refugees to the United States for resettlement consideration. The United States has resettled only 909 Syrian refugees, with a cumulative total of only 1,114 since the beginning of the conflict in Syria.
  • Legal refugees within the United States can become and are urged to quickly become self-sufficient contributors to the U.S. society and economy — as working, taxpaying citizens — and to learn English and attend school.
  • Refugees who enter the United States through its Refugee Resettlement Program must first be referred by UNHCR or by the U.S. embassy in the country of asylum. A family is usually referred together as a single group.
  • Refugees whose applications for U.S. resettlement receive U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approval are matched with a U.S. resettlement organization that will facilitate their resettlement to the United States.
  • States cannot prevent resettlement of refugees in their states or prevent refugee migration from one state to another. The legal authority to determine group and individual refugee resettlement and locations for refugees within the United States is under federal jurisdiction and does not reside with the states, nor their governors or legislative bodies.

Prevention of terrorism in U.S. refugee resettlement

  • U.S. refugees don’t become terrorists. The history of the U.S. refugee program demonstrates that the lengthy, rigorous, and extensive vetting that all refugees must undergo is an effective deterrent for terrorists.
  • Since 1980, the United States has invited in millions of refugees, including hundreds of thousands from the Middle East. Not one has committed an act of terrorism within the United States.
  • Refugee status is the single most difficult way to come to the United States. It is not a fast track way to enter. It makes no sense for a terrorist to try to use the resettlement process for an attack. Processing times for refugee resettlement average 18–24 months and can take as long as three to four years, depending on security concerns.
  • To become a refugee in the United States requires a multi-stage vetting process — and only after receiving U.N. designation by trained officers in the field. The U.S. screens refugees prior to admission in this country, which means terrorists and those most likely to become involved in terrorism can be weeded out, accepting only the most vulnerable.
  • All refugees undergo thorough and rigorous security screenings prior to arriving in the United States. Those include multiple biographic and identity investigations; FBI biometric checks fingerprints and photographs; in-depth, in-person interviews by specialized and well-trained Department of Homeland Security officers; medical screenings; and other checks by U.S. domestic and international intelligence agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center.
  • If the facts presented in these screenings are problematic, refugees are referred for additional security clearance procedures. Only after all these security and medical checks have been received and analyzed can a refugee be admitted to the United States, therefore some individuals may be “on hold” indefinitely.
  • Mandatory supervisory reviews are in place to maintain the security of the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Those reviews include all decisions, random case assignment, interagency national security teams, trained document experts, forensic testing of documents, and interpreter monitoring.
  • Other migration channels are easier to exploit than the U.S. refugee process. In other words: non-refugees have carried out all terrorist attacks over the past 35 years. That means they used other means to arrive in the United States. All of the 9/11 hijackers used student or tourist visas. These visas are much easier and faster to obtain than refugee status.

UUSC thanks its fellow refugee resettlement and human rights partners and coalition members for their contributions to these talking points. 

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