A Historical Perspective of Refugee Crises Through the Years

Last semester my Refugee Seminar student Jesse Brodsky wrote an excellent paper detailing various refugee crises the world has witnessed over the years. I  believe the paper should be shared with the wider world.  Mr. Brodsky has given me permission to post it for you. Read and learn.


Refugee Crises and Their Outcomes Through the Years: A Historical Perspective and What is to Come

Jesse Brodsky

  1. Introduction

Over the course of the past century, there have been many atrocities throughout the world.  Unfortunately, many of these atrocities follow a similar pattern and result in refugee crises.  In the mid 1930s, Hitler rose to power in Germany and led the National Socialist (Nazi) Party.[1]  While in power, Hitler set out to cleanse Germany of all the Jews due to his belief they were an inferior race.  This led to what we know of today as the Holocaust and resulted in millions of deaths and refugees trying to find shelter around the world.[2]  In the 1990s, the breakup of Yugoslavia caused the Bosnian War and resulted in the displacement of three million refugees.[3]  Most recently, since 2011 there has been an ongoing civil war in Syria that has caused more than eleven million refugees to be displaced from their homes.[4]  The unfortunate part of these atrocities is that while the United States is seen as the world’s most dominant power, in reality they have done very little to address the refugee crises that result.  With all the resources available, the United States should be doing far more to address these issues.

This paper addresses the pattern of a few different atrocities that have resulted in refugee crises and the United States lack of response.  Part II of this paper discusses the refugees that resulted from the Holocaust and the United States lack of response.[5]  Part III explains the events that led to the Bosnian War, which led to three million refugees and the unwillingness of the United States to offer much help.[6]  Part IV discuses the Syrian crises going on today and the millions of refugees that have resulted.[7]  Part V provides many reasons why the United States should offer as much help as possible to the Syrian refugees.[8]  Lastly, Part VI explains that while the United States has not always provided much help for refugees in the past, we should learn from our mistakes and take a more hands on approach to help the millions refugees fleeing from the Syrian crisis.[9]

  1. Holocaust

The word Holocaust is of Greek origin and translates to “sacrifice by fire.”[10]  The Holocaust is known to be the most systematic and bureaucratic state sponsored persecution of all time.  In the early 1930’s the German Democracy began to decline, which gave way for the Nazis to rise to power.  The first phase of the Nazis oppression of the Jews consisted of the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws[11], which led thousands of Jews to leave their country and seek refuge in other countries.[12]  The Anschluss[13], or annexation of Austria, by Germany forced hundreds of thousands of more Jews to seek refuge elsewhere.[14]  By the mid 1930s, the Nazis were in complete control of Germany and believed they were “racially superior” to all other races.[15]  The Nazis viewed the Jews to be an inferior race and as a result thought they were an alien threat to the German community.[16]  Jews were not the only group to be targeted by the Nazis while they were in power of Germany.[17]  In 1933, the Jewish population of Europe was over nine million and most of these Jews lived in countries that would eventually be occupied by the Nazis.  By 1945, the Nazis had killed nearly six million of those Jews, which was part of the Nazis final solution.[18]

Although nearly six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, the amount of refugees that resulted from this atrocity is often overlooked.  While many Jewish refugees tried to resettle in different regions throughout Europe, others felt it was safest to leave Europe altogether and try to resettle in the United States.  This section will focus mostly on the policies of the United States that were put into place to prevent Jewish refugees from entering our country.

Over the years, historians who have studied the role the United States played during World War II and the Nazis rise to power have repeatedly shown the United States failure to respond to the refugee crisis that occurred as a result of these events.  There were hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who fled Germany during the Nazis rise to power that sought refuge into the United States and various other countries.  Although the United States eventually admitted about 250,000 Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, that statistic is dramatically lower in proportion to the amount of Jewish refugees other major countries in Europe such as Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands admitted.[19]  The United States is often criticized for not taking in as many Jewish refugees compared to some of the western European countries because of the size of its population at the time of these events, its capacity for refugee absorption, and most importantly the desperate need that these refugees had to flee from the Nazis.[20]

The United States lack of response to the Jewish refugee crisis was first demonstrated at the Evian Conference held in France.[21]  Once knowledge of what was going on in Europe during the Holocaust reached the United States, President Roosevelt called an international conference in Evian, France regarding the status of Jewish refugees.[22]  In Evian, many different countries met on the condition that no nation would be asked to loosen its immigration laws to admit the refugees.[23]  Although all the countries participated in the conference, all that resulted was the creation of the Intergovernmental Committee on Political Refugees (ICPR).[24]  The ICPR was an independent United States based committee that was tasked to address the refugee problem.[25]  Since the United States did not have welcoming refugee laws in place, the ICPR has been criticized for being ineffectual because a United States based committee was running it.  The ICPR was established separately from the existing League of Nations High Commission for Refugees from Germany, which was a small private agency that was established in 1933 as a response to international pressure from numerous countries.[26]  During the Evian Conference, the League of Nations High Commissioner from Germany was concerned about the inability of the nations attending the conference to be able to resolve the ongoing Jewish refugee issue without actually finding a place for them to go.[27]  This was evident when it was discovered that before the Evian Conference, the United States and Great Britain had secretly agreed that the United States would not pressure Great Britain to end its White Paper policy as long as Great Britain did not pressure the United States to change its immigrations laws to permit more refugees.[28]  Overall, the Evian Conference did not offer much assistance to the Jewish refugee crisis.

In the late 1930’s there were multiple legislative proposals that further exemplified the United States unwillingness to help Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.  One proposal introduced to both houses of Congress in 1939 wanted to restrict immigration to ten percent of the German quota.[29]  This same proposal also wanted to halt immigration for a decade or until unemployment fell to three million.[30]  Another proposal in the same year urged, “every alien in the United States shall be forthwith deported.”[31]

After Kristallnacht,[32] some members of Congress introduced a bill in early 1939 to admit above the German quota, an additional 20,000 German children under the age of fourteen over the course of two years.[33]  Although it generated some positive press, the majority of congress as well as the American public opposed this bill.  Instead, congress offered an alternative that would include the 20,000 German children within the overall German quota.[34]  As a result, this alternative would make the restrictions on German adults even tighter.  Had we adopted this bill, it would have saved 20,000 German children from an almost certain death.

In the summer of 1939, another highly publicized event demonstrated the United States restrictionist approach it was taking towards Jewish refugees resulting from the Holocaust.  The St. Louis, had sailed from Hamburg, Germany to Havana, Cuba with around nine hundred Jewish refugees on board.[35]  Once the ship had reached Cuba, all the passengers were denied entry onto land because the Cuban government invalidated the refugees landing certificates (transit visas).[36]  Many of these refugees were still waiting to receive visas to enter the United States.[37]  Once it became clear that the Cubans would not allow the refugees into the country, the ship headed to a port in nearby Miami, Florida.  Like Cuba, the United States denied admission to these refugees and sent the ship back to Europe.  The United States officials made no effort to assist or admit any of the refugees and it had become clear that the United States policy towards Jewish refugees was unwelcoming.[38]  The United States stance was that they had already admitted enough refugees and that there was nothing more they could do.[39]  Both of these statements were far from the truth.  Once the St. Louis headed back to Europe, the governments of Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium each agreed to accept some of the passengers onboard as refugees.[40]  It has been reported that of the nine hundred refugees onboard the St. Louis, almost thirty percent are known to have died in the Holocaust, which means that was three hundred more people the United States could have saved.[41]

Once the war ended and the Nazi party was no longer in control of Germany, the United States still stood firm on their stance of anti-immigration.  This was demonstrated by the minimal efforts the United States made towards helping the remaining Jewish refugees, or displaced persons.  A Gallup Poll published in late 1945 showed that nearly sixty-nine percent of Americans wanted either the same number or fewer Jewish refugees admitted in the United States than had been admitted prior to the war and fourteen percent wanted to get rid of Jewish refugees altogether.[42]  At the time, Congress widely held the same beliefs as most of the American public.  However, at the same time there were numerous United States commissioned reports on the condition of Jewish refugees, which revealed the harsh reality of what was going on in Europe.[43]  In response of these reports, President Truman issued an executive order in December 1945 to address the Jewish displaced person situation.[44]  This executive order was known as the Truman Directive and its objective was to fill all United States immigration quotas for 1946 with preference given to victims of Nazi persecution at the time of the order.[45]  As a result of the Truman Directive, 48,000 refugees received United State visas, but only 28,000 of these refugees were Jewish.[46]  The reason only a little more than half of the refugees who benefited from the executive order were Jewish was due to the result of quotas and restrictions within each quota.[47]  Even though Truman issued this executive order, it did not make members of Congress happy.  At the time Truman issued the executive order, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee criticized Truman for even admitting this small percentage of Jews.[48]  Another member of Congress, the head of the Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Senator William Chapman Revercomb said, “We could solve this displaced person problem all right if we could work out some bill that would keep out the Jews.”[49]

Despite efforts by President Truman, Congresses anti-immigration policy stayed firm and eventually led to the Displaced Persons Act of 1948.[50]  Ironically, although the name of this act seemed that it would help Jewish refugees and displaced persons, the reality is that it did the opposite.  Not only did The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 fail to help Jewish refugees and displaced persons, it actually furthered the discrimination of these groups.[51]  This act incorporated a cut-off date of December 22, 1945 (the date of Truman’s executive order).[52]  The cut-off date denied visas to ninety percent of the Jewish refugees and displaced persons.[53]  In addition, The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 imposed strict requirements that thirty percent of all admitted refugees needed to possess some sort of agricultural skill.[54]  Although the government stated it’s reason for enacting this act was to respond to the shortage of agricultural workers in our country, the reality was that these requirements heavily favored the displaced persons from the Baltic regions,[55] who were fleeing the Soviet Union.[56]

In 1951, the United Nations met in Geneva to establish the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees.[57]  This convention was a direct response to the Jewish refugee crisis as a result of the Holocaust, as well as other refugee crises that resulted from World War II.[58]  Although the United States participated in the drafting, it did not sign on the convention and would not sign until 1967, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.[59]  The most controversial topic at the Convention was the status of the definition of a “refugee.”[60]  Some countries, including the United States, favored a narrow definition by only allowing those who fit within the certain time frame to be eligible to become a refugee, while other countries, such as Great Britain, favored a more broad definition, which would be free of time restrictions.[61]  Furthermore, the United States wanted there to be restrictions in regards to geographic location, while other countries did not see the need for such limitations.  Moreover, the United States was worried what the legal consequences of a broader definition of the term “refugee” would result in.  Delegates from the United States argued they wanted a clear and narrow definition of the term “refugee” if they were going to sign onto the convention, that way they knew their exact obligation.[62]  A quote from a United States delegate summed up our nations stance as to why we wanted a narrow definition:

Too vague a definition, which would amount, so to speak, to a blank check, would not be sufficient … It was inconceivable that the United Nations should undertake responsibility in advance for all possible refugees who might become such as a result of unforeseeable happenings in the future. Such an influx of new refugees who would be enabled by an unduly broad definition to place themselves automatically under the protection of the United Nations would give rise to administrative and financial problems of so great an extent that the High Commissioner would be overwhelmed and wholly unable to meet them.[63]

Nonetheless, this reasoning was little more than the United States using fancy wording to try and eliminate as many refugees that it could.  The United States used the idea of the unknown future to help back its argument as to why it did not want to sign onto the convention.  In reality, the United States was in the best position to be able to take in refugees and did not want to succumb itself to helping others because of the unknown.   The United States claimed that it did not sign the convention originally because it did not conform to the immigration laws that were in place at the time and did not want to sign onto to the convention if was going to contradict its laws.  A United States delegate summed up why we did not sign the convention originally:

The convention was not suited to its national legislation … It would be difficult for the U.S. Government to accept certain commitments and to render itself liable to accept refugees without qualification. Whatever action the United States of America might take in that connexion was a matter for the future, when the problem arose; the country’s past record was well known and needed no justification.[64]


            Many wonder why the United States had a strong anti-immigration policy and offered very minimal protection for refugees during the time of the Holocaust.  One of the main reasons historians have noted has to do with the fact that during this time Congress was overall very conservative.[65]  At the time, foreign policy and keeping domestic nativism dominated immigration and refugee politics in our legislature.[66]  Congress had a fear of anyone that was not a United States citizen.  This fear from Congress was coined the fear of “otherness.”[67]  Congress was afraid that anyone who was not a United States citizen could be a possible “troublemaker” or threat to the country and could cause problems they did not want to have to deal with.  Ultimately, Congress was afraid of the spread of Communism or Nazism into the United States.[68]  In addition, the economic state of our country was in shambles because of the Great Depression and Congress feared that if we allowed all of these refugees into our country, they would take away jobs from Americans (who were already struggling economically without an influx of refugees).[69]

III. Bosnian War

During World War II, Yugoslavia was invaded by the Nazis and was broken apart. As a result, Joseph Tito rose to power and became the “figurehead” leader of Yugoslavia.[70]  Once in power, Joseph Tito tried to unify the region that consisted of: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Vojvodina all under one slogan “Brotherhood and Unity.”[71]  This was not an easy task considering all the different groups of people and ethnicities living there.  Unfortunately, Joseph Tito died in 1980, which led to the downfall of both Yugoslavia’s political and economic state.[72]  One of the areas within the Yugoslav region, Bosnia and Herzegovina became a “hot bed” for ethnic conflict because there were three different ethnic groups residing there at the time: the Serbs, the Croats, and the Albanians.[73]  All three ethnic groups belonged to different religions and had different beliefs when it came to dividing the region.  These differences in ethnicities and religions led to violence throughout the region.  The Serbs were mostly Orthodox Christians, the Croats were mostly Catholics, and the Albanians were mostly Muslim.[74]  According to the 1991 census, Bosnia and Herzegovinas population of 4,355,000 was composed of about forty-four percent Albanians, thirty-two percent Serbs, eighteen percent Croats, and six percent Yugoslavs.[75]  These statistics would change drastically after the conclusion of the Bosnian War.  To make things even more difficult, since there was no single majority nation, Bosnia and Herzegovina could not be the nation-state of any single group, unless its citizens chose to define themselves primarily as Bosnians, rather than Muslims, Serbs, and Croats.  Of course they did not choose to do so.  This was exemplified during the free elections of 1990, when more than eighty percent of the voters choose separate nationalist parties, one Muslim, one Serb, and one Croat.[76]  As time went on, tensions between the different ethnic groups began to rise and each group started developing a sense of nationalism within the region.  Eventually these tensions reached their peak, which led to the Bosnian War.  The Bosnian War took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina from April 1992 to November 1995.[77]  The main actors in the Bosnian War were the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina against the self proclaimed Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats.[78]  The attack on Srebrenica marked the climax of the Bosnian War and is considered the worst mass murder in Europe that had occurred since World War II because of the amount of deaths in such a short period of time.[79]  Before the attack, Srebrenica was considered a safe haven by the United Nations and was under control of the Bosnian government.[80]  On July 11, 1995 the Serbs advanced on Srebrenica and eventually were able to overwhelm the Dutch forces that were stationed there.[81]  After they gained control of Srebrenica, the Bosnian Serb army overran the area, forcing over thirty thousand people to flee and massacring between 6,500 and 8,800 male detainees in just a couple of days.[82]  Usually the men were taken to empty schools or warehouses and after being detained for a couple of hours they were taken onto busses or trucks and brought to another site for execution.[83]  The 30,000 people who fled during the attack on Srebrenica was just a small number compared to the number of people who fled seeking refuge in other regions during the entire Bosnian War.

Although there were around 100,000 people killed during the Bosnian War, that number seems relatively low compared to the amount of refugees that resulted from the war.[84]  While the Holocaust occurred around fifty years earlier, the United States did not seem to learn that it needed to reform its immigration laws to better suit the needs of refugees for future atrocities.  As a result of the Bosnian War, there were over three million refugees displaced around the world.  During the timespan the Bosnian War occurred (1992-1995) the United States only gave refugee status to around 20,000 people.[85]

There are many flawed explanations as to why the United States only granted refugee status to 20,000 people between 1992-1995.  Most of these explanations have to do with the United States strict implementation of its law or exercising discretionary judgment by some official during the refugee application process.  Generally, United States immigration law is very restrictive.  In particular, the criterion for asylum law usually does not work to the advantage of the applicant.[86]  To be eligible to qualify for asylum, one must meet the INA definition of a refugee.  INA §101(a)(42) lays out the requirements to be considered a refugee.[87]  Unfortunately, most victims of the Serbs aggression during the war were not able to establish they had a “well founded fear of persecution.”  Although different ethnic groups fought in the Bosnian War, ironically it was still considered a civil war by the United States.[88]  According to United States immigration law and policy, civil wars and wars that affect large groups of a population in a country do not qualify as forms of persecution that single out the individual.[89]   Further, the evidentiary burden is on the applicant to prove that he or she faced persecution according to one of the five factors in the definition.[90]  This burden particularly affected women who were raped during the Bosnian War because courts would question whether the Serbs who raped these women did so on account of one of the factors laid out in INA §101(a)(42) or for their personal inclination.[91]  Additionally, the courts of the United States play a role in facilitating these restrictive asylum laws by dividing claims into different parts and then focusing on the parts of the claims that do not meet the asylum requirements.  For example, in Ivezaj v. INS, 84 F. 3d 215,217 (6th Cir. 1996), the Sixth Circuit rejected claims for asylum for a Roman Catholic husband and wife with Albanian descent who escaped from Montenegro.[92]  Despite the fact that the court recognized Serbian persecution of Catholics, the court held that there was an insufficient basis of persecution of Albanian Catholics that existed in a specific region of Montenegro.  These restrictive aspects of United States asylum law has worked to the United States benefit by keeping out large numbers of victims of Serb aggression.

Secondly, the referral process an applicant must go through in order to apply to the United States for asylum prevents many from even being able to make a claim to United States immigration officials.[93]  The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) usually would take referrals from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), which meant an applicant must first prove to the UNHCR if he or she fits the eligibility requirements for refugee status.[94]  This posed a problem for many applicants because the UNHCR criterion for determining refugee status is even more restrictive than the United States criteria.  The reason the UNHCR criteria is considered so strict is because it stresses that the perpetrator has to be a recognizable state actor.[95]  In the context of the Bosnian War, this posed a problem to many victims because they would be attacked by “Chetniks” who were paramilitary forces that were made up of private Serbian individuals acting under a private commander.[96]  Since these perpetrators were not considered “state actors” by the UNHCR, they would not be referred to the United States immigration officials.

In addition, it had been reported that officials from the UNHCR under referred or under reported those applicants who may be eligible for refugee status.[97]  Although the UNHCR was supposed to refer all applicants who have family ties to the United States, women-at-risk, and victims of torture or violence, the reality was that they were only referring those in their discretion.[98]  In 1993 the State Department and the UNHCR both stated that there was not enough interest by the Bosnian refugees to be able to fill the quotas, however the U.S. Committee for Refugees interviewed many victims of the Bosnian War who sought refuge into the United States and were never granted a referral.[99]  After these interviews reached the public, the International Rescue Committee found about three hundred individuals who should have been referred by the UNHCR.[100]  This was further exemplified in 1993-1995 when the total number of refugees increased according to the UNHCR, but this same agency decreased the number of people who would be eligible for a referral.  Here is a quote from a Bosnian refugee who safely made it to the United States only because of his family ties.

Thank God that my father had a relative in the United States. If he had not, our case would not have meant a thing. We would never even have been considered for admission to the United States, because the rule is that you either have a relative … or you get a referral letter from UNHCR. I have to state here that a ‘referral letter from UNHCR’ is an abstract thing or at least it was at the time. Almost nobody was given these letters, especially no Bosniaks … I met a man in Split who was in six concentration camps (three Serbian, three Croatian). He applied for a referral letter and he was denied, because his case was not strong enough …. As a refugee, I have to say that this referral letter issue has been painful and costly in lives. I can only guess how many lives were wasted because somebody in UNHCR had the power to decide about who could come into the United States and who could not. It was shocking for me to learn that the United States was allowing the UNHCR to do the selection for the resettlement program.[101]


Moreover, in addition to the UNHCR referral process being discretionary, the agency became overwhelmed with applications, which made it even more difficult for these victims to be granted refugee status.[102]  The UNHCR gets its funding from the United Nations, which gets a large portion of its funding from the United States.[103]  This system was flawed because it allowed the United States to have a great influence on how the United Nations would spend its funds.  As a result, the United Nations would not provide the UNHCR with enough resources to allow the agency to be properly staffed to handle the influx of applications during the Bosnian War.  Overall, this referral process helped keep out many victims of the Serbs aggression during the Bosnian War.

Similar to the Holocaust, many wonder why the United States did not offer much help to the refugees that were fleeing persecution during the Bosnian War.  Many historians have concluded that one of the main reasons we did not offer much help with the refugee crisis was because most of the refugees were Albanian Muslims.  This is significant because throughout history, there has been a strong anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States.[104]  Others have concluded that American’s have a tendency to blame the victim.  When the United States government classified the Bosnian War as a civil war, they made the public believe that there were no innocents and that both sides were committing atrocities against each other.  With this belief, Americans did not feel it was safe to let many of the participants into our country.

  1. Syrian Crisis

The Syrian crisis began in March 2011 in the southern city Deraa with pro-democracy protests after a few teenagers were arrested and tortured because they painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall.[105]  At first, the protests were relatively peaceful and not a major cause for concern.  However, once the government began to crack down, the protestors began to fight back.[106]  The government opened fire on some of the demonstrators, which resulted in several deaths and even more protestors taking the streets.[107]  These events triggered protests throughout the entire country of Syria calling for President Bashar al-Assad to resign.[108]  Any attempt the Syrian government made to quiet the protestors only worsened the situation.  By July 2011, only a few months after the initial protests, hundreds of thousands were flooding the streets.[109]  Eventually these rallies became so violent that protestors began carrying weapons to defend themselves from local government officials.

These protests continued to escalate and eventually the country was thrown into a civil war as protestors now turned rebels were fighting government forces for control of the country.  The civil war continued to spread and eventually reached Damascus[110] and Aleppo[111] in 2012.  By June 2013, the UN had reported that over 90,000 people had been killed in the civil war.[112]  By August 2014, that statistic more than doubled to 191,000 deaths and continued to rise to 250,000 deaths by August 2015.[113]  To make matters worse, the civil war has turned into an even bigger conflict with sectarian battles between the county’s Sunni majority against the president’s Shia minority.[114]  Further, the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) has made the situation that much more dangerous.

While the death tolls continue to rise, so do the number of refugees fleeing from the civil war within Syria.  In 2012 there were 100,000 refugees and by April 2013, there were 800,000 refugees.[115]  Just four months later the number doubled to 1.6 million refugees.[116]  In total, since the start of the conflict in 2011, more than four million people have fled Syria.[117]  In addition, there are over seven million Syrians who have been internally displaced within the country.[118]  Combining the two statistics brings the total number of people who have fled their homes to over eleven million, which was half of Syria’s pre-civil war population.[119]

With more than four millions refugees fleeing Syria, nearby countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq have helped by taking many of them into their country.  Turkey has taken in almost two million refugees and Lebanon has taken in over a million refugees, with many of them living in abandoned buildings, sheds, spare rooms, garages, and tent settlements in vacant land.[120]  Jordan has taken in about 630,000 refugees, with most of them living with host families or in refugee camps.[121]  Jordan is known for having two prominent refugee camps, with nearly 80,000 refugees living in Za’atari[122] and another 24,000 refugees living in Azraq.[123]  Although Iraq is dealing with its own armed conflict, they have still taken in around 250,000 Syrians.[124]

However, there is a dilemma with many of these refugees living in the Middle East.  With so much duress currently in that region of the world, many refugees do not feel it is safe to simply relocate in a bordering country of Syria.  Instead, many refugees feel it is safer to leave the region all together and venture to further regions such as Europe and even the United States.  Although the refugees know that Europe and United States are much further than countries such as Jordan or Lebanon, many of them are willing to travel great distances and risk their lives to get away from the ongoing civil war.[125]  As a result, this dilemma has caused an intense debate in Europe and the United States as to whether they should accept Syrian refugees as well.

In the fiscal year of 2015, the United States took in nearly 70,000 refugees and only about 2,000 of the refugees were from Syria.[126]  This statistic is very low compared to some of the European countries, such as Germany and Sweden.  Germany has already taken in over 57,000 refugees and has offered to take in 500,000 refugees annually for the next several years.[127]  Similarly, Sweden has joined Germany in demonstrating that they will offer help to the Syrian refugees.  So far Sweden has taken in nearly 30,000 Syrian refugees and is willing to take more.[128]  This is not a surprise, as Sweden took in nearly 84,000 refugees during the Bosnian War as well.[129]  Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Margot Wallstrom recently was quoted, “We accept that every person has a right to seek asylum.  This also puts the European solidarity to a test.  I think it’s important that we signal being a community that rests on common values of democracy and defense of human rights.”[130]  While Germany and Sweden are leading the way responding to the Syrian refugee crisis, the United States needs to follow suit and embrace a similar response in regard to its refugee policy.

To respond to growing questions as to why the United States has let in so few refugees compared to its European counterparts, President Obama has ordered his administration to “scale up” the number of Syrian refugees to at least 10,000 by the next fiscal year.[131]  These 10,000 Syrian refugees would come from the United States quota of 75,000 total refugee admissions that is slated for the next year.[132]  Although admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees seems like a low figure compared to what countries such as Germany or Sweden have done, it is a signal that the United States may be headed in the right direction in terms of remediating the crisis.

The problem is that while Obama and his administration are trying to increase the number of Syrian refugees, more than half of our states governors are not receptive towards this policy.  In fact more than half of our nations governors oppose letting Syrian refugees into their states borders.[133]  The reason why our governors oppose Syrian refugees is due to their fear of terrorism.  These governors have argued if we start allowing Syrian refugees into our country, there is a possibility that some of them will be terrorists.  These announcements by the governors came after French authorities revealed at least one of the suspects involved in the Paris attacks entered Europe as a Syrian refugee.  The problem with the governor’s position is that immigration law is not ultimately up to the states.  While states can make the acceptance process very difficult and time consuming, the authority over admitting refugees is with the federal government.[134]  As Stephen Legomsky, former chief counsel of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stated,

The one thing I feel very comfortable saying is there is absolutely no constitutional power for a state to exclude anyone from its territories. The states have no power whatsoever to restrict travel into their territories by anyone. That law has been clear for more than 100 years. The Supreme Court has long been insistent that we can’t have 50 different sets of immigration laws operating at the same time. Perhaps more important than what can legally be done is what should be done.  One person, out of the more than 1 million refugees who have recently fled to Europe, might have obtained a fake Syrian passport and then engaged in a terrorist act. That is no reason to turn our backs on an entire population of Syrian men, women and children who are desperately trying to escape the cruelest barbarities imaginable.[135]


  1. Resolutions

When Germany recently announced they will try to take in as many as half a million refugees each year for the next several years, that put tremendous pressure on other countries, including the United States to do the same.  While this statement may have set a high bar for other nations, the United States should embrace this refugee crisis and try to offer as much help as it can.  While the half a million-quota set by Germany may be unrealistic, the United States should be more engaged in this crisis by helping expand its refugee quota to help the millions that have been affected by the crisis for a multitude of reasons.

The first reason the United States should expand its refugee quota to help accommodate the Syrian refugees is leadership.  United States law sets the standard for the rest of the world and therefore if our laws regarding refugees erode it is likely that the rest of the world will follow suit.  One of the reasons the United States has not been as “hands on” with the Syrian refugee crisis is because of geography.[136]  Being that we are across the world from this current crisis, the United States has avoided huge inflows of refugees arriving at our countries borders.  Regardless, geography should not be an excuse for why we, as a nation have not taken more action.  With the amount of resources available to the United States throughout the world, we can still use our leadership to help resettle refugees into safer areas.  The problem with our resettlement program is we are still frightened from the September 11th attacks and that a potential terrorist may make his or her way into our country.  This fear is vividly seen throughout our government despite that fact it has not happened in fifteen years.[137]  In addition, it is not very likely that a terrorist would go through the arduous trek from across the world to try and get through the heavily scrutinized resettlement program in the United States.[138]

The second reason the United States should expand its refugee quota is because of a matter of responsibility.  The Syrian refugee crisis is tied together with the Iraq war and its aftermath.  The two most recent presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, are both responsible for this refugee crisis.  Some critics blame George W. Bush for starting a war, which brought chaos to Iraq and eventually Syria.[139]  Others blame Barack Obama for pulling soldiers out of Iraq and then declining to take out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.[140]  While it may be hard to put all the responsibility on one or the other, the truth is we played a prominent role in starting the biggest refugee crisis since World War II and now we must respond.  The United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) is a private group that has proposed we take in 100,000 Syrian refugees by the end of next year.[141]  While that number may sound high, it is not to far fetch from what our nation has done in the past.  After the Vietnam War the United States took in nearly a million Indochinese refugees and following the Cold War, we took in more than 300,000 Soviet Jew refugees.[142]

The third reason we should help the Syrian refugees by expanding our quota is because of self-interest.  Throughout our nations history, we have benefited from the refugees we have resettled throughout the country.  For example, German refugee scientists helped us win World War II and Eastern European scholars fleeing communism worked for our countries best universities during the Cold War.[143] Further, many Vietnameese and Chinese refugees fleeing the Vietnam War went on to open high tech companies that have allowed the United States to dominate the industries in their sectors.[144]

Another reason we should expand our refugee quota to help accommodate Syrian refugees is to defeat ISIS.  In addition to the Syrian refugees fleeing the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, many are also fleeing away from ISIS.[145]  Ironically, this may be what ISIS wants because if the United States starts turning away Syrian refugees, it may add to ISIS’ propaganda that Americans are intolerant of people from the Middle East.[146]  It is not hard to imagine Syrian refugees who are turned away from the United States to want to get revenge for not being allowed to enter our country.[147]  What better way for these Syrian refugees to get revenge then to join ISIS?  If we choose to not allow Syrian refugees to enter our country, then it is very likely they will end up back in Syria or at least countries located close to Syria.  These countries, including Syria, are the most vulnerable to ISIS recruitment, which could lead many to join.  On the contrary, Syrian refugees who are turned away from the United States and refuse to join ISIS will be subject to the same persecution they faced before trying to leave Syria.

The last and perhaps most important reason the United States should expand its refugee quota is for humanitarian relief.  Besides the millions of refugees resulting from this crisis, more than 240,000 people have been killed, including 12,000 children.[148]  These children have become extremely vulnerable during the crisis.  For instance, children living in Syria are susceptible to malnutrition brought on by poor sanitation, working in dangerous circumstances for little pay, and vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation.[149]  Between two and three million Syrian children are not attending school and the U.N. has recently reported that this crisis has reversed ten years of progress in education.[150]  Further, one million Syrians (adults and children) have been wounded or permanently disabled.[151]  Since foreign powers have joined in the war, the conflict has become even more deadly.

  1. Conclusion

The mass atrocities that have occurred throughout the world over the past century have followed a similar pattern and resulted in comparable refugee crises.  Two examples, the Holocaust and the Bosnian War, demonstrate that the United States has not done enough to address these refugee crises despite all the resources that are available.  Although our nation has not done enough in the past, we have the power to be able to help the millions of refugees fleeing from the Syrian crisis occurring now.  In terms of leadership, the rest of the world looks to the United States for guidance, so if we set the tone by assisting these refugees, hopefully the rest of the world will follow suit.  Additionally, the United States should take responsibility for addressing this refugee crisis, since we are at least partly to blame for starting the civil war in Syria.  Further, in terms of self-interest, the United States should want to help these refugees because as we have seen in the past, many refugees have turned out to be very productive in our society.  Also, by taking in refugees fleeing the Syrian crisis will slowly help defeat ISIS.  Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we should want to help these refugees for humanitarian relief.  In addition to the millions fleeing the region, there are hundreds of thousands losing their lives because of this crisis, including over 12,000 children.  It is crucial that we, as Americans understand the severity of this situation and do all that we can to stop history from repeating itself.




[1] Introduction To the Holocaust, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (August 18, 2015), https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005143.

[2] Id.

[3]The War in Bosnia, 1992-1995, U.S. Department of State- Office of the Historian (October 31, 2013), https://history.state.gov/milestones/1993-2000/bosnia

[4] Quick Facts: What you need to know about the Syria crisis, Mercy Corps (October 7, 2015), https://www.mercycorps.org/articles/iraq-jordan-lebanon-syria-turkey/quick-facts-what-you-need-know-about-syria-crisis.

[5] See infra Part II.

[6] See infra Part III.

[7] See infra Part IV.

[8] See infra Part V.

[9] See Infra Part VI.

[10] Introduction To the Holocaust, supra note 1

[11] The Nuremberg Laws were announced by the Nazis at an annual rally held in 1935.  The laws institutionalized many of the racial theories that were prevalent in Nazi ideology.  For example, the laws excluded Jews from German citizenship and prohibited them from marrying or having any sexual relations with persons of German or related blood.  Further, the laws deprived Jews of most political rights. See The Nuremberg Race Laws, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (August 18, 2015), https://www.ushmm.org/outreach/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007695.

[12] Id.

[13] Anschluss was the Nazi propaganda term for the invasion and forced incorporation of Austria to Nazi Germany in March 1938.  See Hitler Announces an Anschluss with Austria, This Day in History, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/hitler-announces-an-anschluss-with-austria.

[14] Id.

[15] Introduction To the Holocaust, supra note 1.

[16] Id.

[17] Besides Jews, the Nazis also targeted other groups they deemed to be “racially superior” to such as: Gypsies, the disabled, Poles, and Russians.  In addition, other groups were targeted on political, ideological, and behavioral grounds.  These groups included: Communists, Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals.  See Id.

[18] The final solution consisted of a multi-step process by the Nazis.  First, the Nazis would take the Jews into concentration camps throughout Europe.  These concentration camps were mostly forced-labor camps, where thousands of Jews would die from exhaustion and starvation.  Then the Jews who survived these concentration camps, were moved to killing centers throughout Europe.  Perhaps the most infamous killing center, Auschwitz, had four gas chambers where up to 6,000 Jews were gassed to death each day. See Id.

[19] Naomi S. Stern, Evian’s Legacy: the Holocaust, The United Nations Refugee Convention, And Post-War Refugee Legislation in the United States, 19 Geo. Immigr. L.J. 313 (2004).

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Deborah E. Lipstadt, Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945 190 (1986).

[24] Henry L. Feingold, The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust,1938-1945 67 (1970).

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] David S Wyman, Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938-1941 104 (1968).

[28] Arieh J. Kochavi, Post-Holocaust Politics: Britain, the United States, and Jewish Refugees 1945-1948 33 (2001).

[29] Stern, supra, at 314.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Kristallnacht, which occurred on November 9th, 1938, was an attack against Jews throughout Germany and Austria that was carried out by the Nazis.  The name Kristallnacht comes from the shards of broken glass that flooded the streets coming from Jewish stores, buildings, and synagogues.  As a result, it is commonly referred to as the Night of Broken Glass.  During this event, hundreds of Jews were killed and 30,000 more were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps.  In addition, over 1,000 synagogues were burned and over 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed or severely damaged. See Kristallnacht, United States Holocaust Memorial (August 18, 2015), https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005201.

[33] Wyman, note 27, at 110.

[34] Id.

[35] Refugees, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (August 18,2015), https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005139.

[36] Id.

[37] Id.

[38] Stern, supra, at 317.

[39] Id.

[40] Refugees, supra note 35.

[41] Id.

[42] Stern, supra, at 319.

[43] Id.

[44] Yahuda Bauer, Out of the Ashes: Impact of American Jews on Post Holocaust European Jewry, 81 (1989).

[45] Id.

[46] Stern, supra, at 321.

[47] Id.

[48] Id.

[49] Id.

[50] Statement by the President Upon Signing the Displaced Persons Act, The American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=12942.

[51] Id.

[52] Id.

[53] Id.

[54] Id.

[55] Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, Sweden, and Lithuania

[56] Statement by the President Upon Signing the Displaced Persons Act, supra note 50.

[57] A “Timeless” Treaty Under Attack, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (June 1, 2001), https://www.unhcr.ch/1951 convention/timeless.html.

[58] Id.

[59] Id.

[60] Stern, supra, at 318.

[61] Id.

[62] Id.

[63] Id.

[64] Id.

[65] https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005139

[66] Stern, supra, at 316.

[67] Id.

[68] Id.

[69] Id.

[70] Bosnia-Herzegovina Timeline, BBC News (March 18,2015), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-17212376.

[71] Id.

[72] Id.

[73] Bosnian War, New World Encyclopedia (February 19, 2003), https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Bosnian_War.

[74] Id.

[75] Charles W. Ingra & Thomas Allen Emmet, Confronting the Yugoslav Controversies: A Scholars’ Initiative 181 (2013).

[76] Robert Hayden, Serbian and Croatian Nationalism and the Wars In Yugoslavia, Cultural Survival, https://www.culturalsurvival.org/ourpublications/csq/article/serbian-and-croatian-nationalism-and-wars-in-yugoslavia.

[77] Ingra & Allen, supra, at 42.

[78] Id.

[79] Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia, Srebrenica Massacre, https://www.islamawareness.net/Persecution/Srebrenica/bosnia_ethnic_cleansing.html.

[80] Id.

[81] Ingra & Allen, supra, at 67.

[82] Id.

[83] Id.

[84] Struggle for Control in Bosnia, Bosnian Genocide, https://www.history.com/topics/bosnian-genocide.

[85] Id.

[86] Alan Freeman, Refugee Law and the Bosnian Rape Camps: Our Role in the Slaughter, 11 Geo. Immigr. L.J. 811 (1997).

[87] The term refugee means (A) any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, or (B) in such special circumstances as the President after appropriate consultation (as defined in section 207(e) of this Act) may specify, any person who is within the country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, within the country in which such person is habitually residing, and who is persecuted or who has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The term “refugee” does not include any person who ordered, incited, assisted or otherwise participated in the persecution of any person on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. See Immigration & Nationality Act (INA) § 101(a)(42)(A) (2006).

[88] Freeman, supra at 824.

[89] See Sivaainkaran v. INS, 972 F.2d 161, 165 (7th Cir. 1992) (“Conditions of political upheaval which affect the populace as a whole or in large part are generally insufficient to establish eligibility for asylum.”). See also Zulbeari v. INS, 963 F 2d 999, 1000 (7th Cir. 1992) (“to demonstrate a well-founded fear, a petitioner must present specific, detailed facts showing a good reason to fear that he or she will be singled out for persecution).

[90] Freeman, supra, at 827.

[91] Id.

[92] Id.

[93] Id.

[94] Id.

[95] Id.

[96] Id.

[97] Ingra & Allen, supra, at 79.

[98] Id.

[99] Freeman, supra at 825.

[100] Id.

[101] Id.

[102] Ingra & Allen, supra, at 88.

[103] Id.

[104] Id.

[105] Syria: The Story of the Conflict, BBC News (October 9, 2015), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26116868.

[106] Id.

[107] Id.

[108] Elizabeth MacBride, Why the US should Welcome Syrian Refugees, CNBC News (September 28, 2015), https://www.cnbc.com/2015/09/28/why-the-us-should-welcome-syrian-refugees-commentary.html.

[109] Id.

[110] Damascus is located in southwest Syria and is the capital and second largest city in the country. See Syria: The Story of the Conflict, supra note 105.

[111] Aleppo is located in southwest Syria and is the largest city in Syria.  It is known for being one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world.  See Id.

[112] Id.

[113] Id.

[114] Id.

[115] Quick Facts: What you need to know about the Syria crisis, supra note 4

[116] Id.

[117] Id.

[118] Kathy Gilsinan, The Confused Person’s Guide to the Syrian Civil War, The Atlantic (October 29, 2015), https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/10/syrian-civil-war-guide-isis/410746/.

[119] Id.

[120] What you need to know: Crisis in Syria, refugees, and the impact on children, World Vision (December 4, 2015), https://www.worldvision.org/news-stories-videos/syria-war-refugee-crisis.

[121] Id.

[122] Za’atari is a refugee camp located in the northern region of Jordan.  It is estimated that there are around 80,000 refugees living in the camp. See Id.

[123] Azraq is a refugee camp located in central Jordan.  It is estimated that there are around 28,000 refugees living in the camp. See Id.

[124] Id.

[125] Perhaps the most well known story is of Aylan Kurdi, a three year old Syrian whose body washed ashore a Turkish beach.  The images of the drowned boy has stirred public outrage throughout the world. See George Parkinson & David George-Cosh, Image of Drowned Syrian Boy Echoes Around the World, The Wall Street Journal (September 3,2015), https://www.wsj.com/articles/image-of-syrian-boy-washed-up-on-beach-hits-hard-1441282847.

[126] Michael Martinez, Syrian refugees: Which countries welcome them, which ones don’t, CNN World (September 10, 2015), https://www.cnn.com/2015/09/09/world/welcome-syrian-refugees-countries/.

[127] Id.

[128] Id.

[129] Id.

[130] Id.

[131] See Syria: The Story of the Conflict, supra note 105.

[132] Id.

[133] Ashley Fantz & Ben Brumfield, More than half the nation’s governors say Syrian refugees not welcome, CNN World (November 19, 2015)

[134] Id.

[135] Neil Schoenherr, WashU Expert: American governors have little power to block Syrian refugees, Washington University in St. Louis Newsroom (November 17, 2015), https://news.wustl.edu/news/Pages/Legomsky-Syrian-immigrants.aspx.

[136] Kathleen Newland, Why U.S. should do more for refugees, CNN World (September 9, 2015), https://www.cnn.com/2015/09/09/opinions/newland-europe-refugee-crisis/index.html.

[137] Id.

[138] Id.

[139] Steve Chapman, This is Why America Should Take More Syrian Refugees, Reason.com (September 14, 2015), https://reason.com/archives/2015/09/14/america-should-take-more-syrian-refugees.

[140] Id.

[141] Id.

[142] Id.

[143] Newland, supra note 136.

[144] Id.

[145] Id.

[146] Jesse Andreozzi, Turning Away Syrian Refugees is Exactly What ISIS Wants, Huffington Post (November 18, 2015), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jesse-andreozzi/turning-away-syrian-refugees-is-exactly-what-isis-wants_b_8585084.html.

[147] Id.

[148] Quick Facts: What you need to know about the Syria crisis, supra note 4.

[149] Id.

[150] Id.

[151] Id.

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