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Refugee issue critical in US presidential elections

18 January 20160 comments

When President Obama invited a Syrian refugee to watch his State of the Union Address in person last week, he all but nailed his colours to the mast while guaranteeing the debate over admitting refugees into the United States will be a major issue in the 2016 presidential race.

From Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war to Central Americans escaping their countries’ drug wars, the US has, in recent years, faced a rush to its borders that has sparked a heated political debate.

Barack Obama at the 2016 State of the Union address

Barack Obama at the 2016 State of the Union address

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump called for a temporary ban on all Muslim immigrants and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill to halt the Syrian and Iraqi refugee programs.

They argued that the US federal government needs to upgrade its screening of refugee applicants to ensure that terrorists aligned with the Syria-based Islamic State don’t gain admittance to the US.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration says refugees already are vetted thoroughly, and Democratic presidential candidates say the US needs to remain a refuge for those fleeing for their lives.

They say the current vetting process is sufficient, saying that it typically takes two years and pointing to the fact that no refugees have committed acts of terrorism in the US.

The debate is certain to intensify in the coming months as all candidates clarify their positions and the republicans are almost certain to appeal to the insularity and natural conservatism of many Americans.

Some observers have lamented that, as was the case in Australia, a successful refugee program based on humanitarian needs has become a political football.

Most informed commentators say that the US’ refugee program has always worked quite well.

But terror attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino by radical Islamists have made the refugee system part of the political scrum in the lead up to the November Presidential elections.

Despite the political hot air, the US’ Syrian refugee program has been a small one.

From 2002 to 2013, a total of 248 Syrian refugees entered the US, according to State Department data.

But as the fighting in Syria escalated in recent years, so has the American response. Nearly 2,200 Syrian refugees were accepted by the US in 2015, and President Obama wants to increase admissions to 10,000 this year.

Overall, the largest group of refugees entering the United States came from the Middle East or South Asia (35.2 per cent), followed by Africa (31.7 per cent), East Asia (26.7 per cent), Europe (3.4 per cent) and Latin America or the Caribbean (3 per cent).

Those numbers pale in comparison to European and Middle Eastern countries that have borne the brunt of the waves of refugees.

More than 1.7 million refugees have been living in Turkey. Germany has accepted more than 425,000 refugees from Syria.

The United States’ nearest neighbour, Canada, has accepted 10,000 Syrian refugees and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to bring in up to 25,000.


Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist