Myth ­Busting: The Syrian Refugee Issue and Islamophobia

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VERA ECCARIUS-KELLY & MEVLUDE AKAY ALP (The Legal Project, Albany, NY)

Xenophobia, an irrational fear of people from other countries, and Islamophobia, an​exaggerated hostility toward Muslims and Islam,​appear to be on the rise in both Europe and the United States.​ According to research carried out by Gallup, a U.S. based public opinion firm, Islamophobia tends to frame Muslims as disloyal members of society. ​Such perceptions produce bias and patterns of discrimination, which can lead to the exclusion of Muslims from civic, political, and social life in societies.

In addition, hostile and politicized rhetoric often adds fuel to the fire of Islamophobia. In the U.S., anti­Muslim demagoguery is now part of stump speeches among numerous presidential candidates. In Europe, far­right parties continue to gain support. To name just one example, Marine Le Pen, the president of France’s National Front, focuses on linking xenophobic and Islamophobic notions by arguing that migrants, refugees, and open borders directly threaten the safety of the French nation.

The manipulative conflation of specific terminology has advanced a number of myths about refugees, which continue to shape antagonistic discourses toward Syrian Muslims in particular. This blog post serves to counteract this trend by disentangling a variety of misperceptions and providing insights.

Myth #1: Refugees arrive for economic reasons and are uneducated.

Refugees come from all levels of society, and most would prefer to remain in their home countries, yet persecution and violence have forced them to leave behind homes, jobs and families. Refugees are not people who migrate to the U.S. for economic reasons.

Myth #2: Refugees/Asylum seekers have no legal right to come to the U.S.

Refugees and asylum seekers share many similarities in terms of the circumstances that led them to escape their home countries, however these terms refer to distinct legal statuses with vastly different consequences for individuals upon arrival in the U.S. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is any person who fears that, if returned to his or her country of origin, he or she will suffer persecution on account of one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.

An individual may seek asylum at the U.S. border, or while in the U.S., on the basis that they meet the refugee definition. Asylum seekers make their own way to the U.S., and are permitted to remain until their asylum claim is decided. If they are determined to be a refugee, they become eligible to adjust to lawful permanent residence status one year after they are granted asylum.

A small number of refugees are also resettled into the U.S. from overseas. The U.S., along with several other countries, provides a refugee resettlement program which involves a lengthy and intensive screening process overseas, during which individuals must be determined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to satisfy the refugee definition and be of “special humanitarian” concern to the U.S. Once resettled, refugees become permanent residents and are eligible to receive benefits similar to those enjoyed by U.S. citizens.

Myth #3: Asylum seekers benefit from generous welfare handouts

Asylum seekers face a difficult task navigating the legal system and supporting themselves upon arrival in the U.S. After filing an asylum application, asylum seekers usually have to wait several years before they are scheduled for an interview at which their claim will be assessed. During that time, they are ineligible for welfare benefits, and cannot apply for work authorization until six months after filing an application. This presents a catch­22 situation, where they are legally prohibited from working to support themselves for at least six months, yet are simultaneously barred from receiving any welfare support. Many asylum seekers undergo dangerous journeys to reach the U.S., and suffer abuse at the hands of those guiding them, on top of the persecution that they have faced in their home countries. As a result, some suffer from psychological disorders and are unable to discuss traumatic events necessary to file for asylum. This makes it difficult to find an attorney, who must file the proper paperwork within one year of the asylum seeker’s arrival in the U.S.

Myth #4: The U.S. has accepted too many Syrians

Between October 1, 2011 and November 20, 2015, the U.S. resettled a mere 2,261 Syrian refugees (Turkey hosts an estimated 2 million registered Syrians, while Germany accepted upward of 600,000 Syrians this year). The top U.S. resettlement states were California, Texas, and Michigan according to a report issued by the Migration Policy Institute. Syrian nationals who are physically present in the U.S. or arrive at a U.S. port of entry can apply for asylum status. In 2001, 60 Syrians applied for asylum. In 2012, that number rose to 364 persons, and in 2013, 811 Syrians pursued asylum status.

The U.S. provides “temporary protected status” to people living in the U.S., from designated countries where unsafe conditions, such as armed conflict, temporarily prevent them from returning safely. Such individuals may not fear persecution on the basis of one of the refugee grounds necessary to apply for asylum, so this status provides a safe haven until return to their home country becomes possible. Syria has been a designated country since March 2012 due to the ongoing conflict. Once a person is granted temporary protected status, he or she is considered lawfully residing in the U.S. and is eligible to apply for employment authorization. Such persons are ineligible for welfare benefits, and permission to remain is temporary, with no option to adjust to permanent residency.

Refugees and asylum seekers have a legal right to have their applications reviewed. Hostile and misleading political rhetoric and Islamophobic tendencies only aim to widen the socio­cultural gaps between various communities. Only ideologues of various convictions seem to benefit from such despicable tactics.

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