Refugees are Not Terrorists: HRW Decries Efforts to Reject People Fleeing Wars in Syria & Iraq

November 18, 2015
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Peter Bouckaert

Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director. He has spent the last few months in the Balkans and Greece speaking to refugees coming mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Friday’s deadly attacks in Paris have set off a storm of calls to close borders and reject refugees fleeing Syria, where over 4 million people have already left the war-torn country. President Obama said any attempts to block entry of Syrian refugees to the United States is "offensive and contrary to American values." "When individuals say that we should have a religious test and that only Christians—proven Christians—should be admitted, that’s offensive and contrary to American values," Obama said. "I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric that’s been coming out of here during the course of this debate." We speak to Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director. He has spent the last few months in the Balkans and Greece speaking to refugees coming mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Friday’s deadly attacks in Paris have set off a storm of calls to close borders and reject refugees fleeing Syria, where over 4 million people have already fled the war-torn country. Less than 24 hours after the Paris attacks, Poland’s incoming European affairs minister said Poland would pull back from a European Union-wide commitment to relocate refugees. The anti-refugee sentiment was quickly echoed by other right-wing leaders across Europe. In France, Marine Le Pen, the head of the National Front party, demanded a, quote, "immediate halt of all intake of migrants in France." In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, the head of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, called on the country’s prime minister to close the borders entirely.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile in the United States, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have called for a pause in the U.S. program accepting Syrian refugees, and governors of at least 27 U.S. states have said they will not accept Syrian refugees. A Syrian passport which appears to be fake was found near the body of one of the Paris attackers, whose fingerprints matched someone who passed through Greece and the Balkans. But all the attackers identified so far are European nationals.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Speaking in the Philippines, President Obama said any attempts to block entry of Syrian refugees to the United States is, quote, "offensive and contrary to American values."

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are not well served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic. We don’t make good decisions if it’s based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks. And I think the refugee debate is an example of us not being well served by some of the commentary that’s been taking place by officials back home and in the media. ...

We’re welcome—we’re open to hearing actual ideas, but that’s not really what’s been going on in this debate. When candidates say we wouldn’t admit three-year-old orphans, that’s political posturing. When individuals say that we should have a religious test and that only Christians—proven Christians—should be admitted, that’s offensive and contrary to American values. I cannot think of a more—more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric that’s been coming out of here during the course of this debate.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Obama speaking in the Philippines.

For more, we’re joined by Peter Bouckaert. He is Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director, just back from months in the Balkans and Greece speaking to refugees coming mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Posting messages on Twitter, Peter Bouckaert has helped expose the realities of life for refugees fleeing violence at home, was one of the first people to share images of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned off a Turkish beach.

Peter Bouckaert, welcome back to Democracy Now!

PETER BOUCKAERT: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: As you come back, just in the last two days, dealing with the refugees, documenting what’s happening on the ground, your response to what’s being said in the United States about not accepting refugees?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, it’s both morally reprehensible and factually wrong to equate these people with terrorists. They’re actually fleeing from the terrorists, and they’ve faced horrors of war in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan. Many of them are coming with their families, trying to bring them to safety and a better future in Europe. And they should be welcomed. They will contribute to our society, and they have a right to asylum. They should not be having to risk their lives and face all of this humiliation on this journey just to get what is legally their right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about—you’ve interviewed many of the refugees. Could you talk about some of their experiences and what they’ve told you about their fleeing? Some of them actually fled after being subjected to bombings from Western powers, as well.

PETER BOUCKAERT: Yes, many of them have come directly from Syria. They’ve tried to stay in Syria for as long as possible. It’s not like this was their first choice. They really love their country. They’ve faced bombing from the West and from Russia, as well, especially by the Assad regime. And many of them have lost family members to those bombings. I’ve also met a lot of young men and women who have lost their legs and other limbs to these bombing raids and who have been carried this whole journey to safety in Europe.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to comments made by House Speaker Paul Ryan regarding admitting Syrian refugees here in the United States.

SPEAKER PAUL RYAN: The national defense bill that I will sign later today requires the president to come up with a plan for defeating ISIS—not just containing, but defeating ISIS. A containment plan is not enough. That has failed. In addition, the majority leader and our committee chairs are developing a plan to address the Syrian refugee crisis. Our nation has always been welcoming, but we cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion. This is a moment where it’s better to be safe than to be sorry. So we think the prudent, the responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program, in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population. In the end, the ultimate solution to this crisis is a strategy to defeat ISIS. All of this rises above politics. This is not about politics. This is about national security. And so, we will invite all of our colleagues, Republicans and Democrats, to work with us quickly to address the urgent nature of this situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what Paul Ryan is calling for?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, I think it’s absolutely misguided. Yes, there is a struggle to defeat ISIS, but that is not just a military struggle. It’s a struggle for the hearts and minds of the people of the Middle East. And that struggle for the hearts and minds is actually the most important component of what we have to accomplish. And by shutting the door on the refugees fleeing from ISIS and from the horrors of the war in Syria, we’re doing no favor in terms of winning the hearts and minds of these people.

The reality is that any Syrian refugee coming to the United States already goes through four different levels of security review by different U.S. agencies, so the danger of anybody coming in under the guise of refugee status and being actually a terrorist is absolutely minuscule. We admit 70,000 people already every year, many of them from Iraq and Somalia, and there has not been a single incident of a person turning out to be a terrorist.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about the reaction in Europe to the refugees, both before the attacks in Paris and now, subsequently, afterward?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, I think one of the reasons why these two crises—the Paris attack and the refugee crisis—have become conflated is because Europe has not felt in charge of this crisis, because they have not had clear and coherent policies towards these refugees. It has been chaos in Europe. And it’s really important, instead of shutting the door on these people, that we come up with coherent policies which allow people to claim asylum in a way which is safe and legal and protects their rights.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Why has it been so chaotic, given the fact that this has now been going on for at least a year or more?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, the reality is that still on the beaches of Europe, two Alan Kurdis are still drowning every day. And many of the humanitarian needs of these desperate people are being met by volunteers and not by EU institutions, because there are no EU policies towards these people. The EU cannot agree to a common policy on how to accommodate these people, and that’s why we have chaos. It’s really important that Europe and the world takes charge of this crisis, or otherwise the crisis will take charge of Europe.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking Tuesday, the Czech president, Milos Zeman, said the young men fleeing war zones should be, quote, "fighting for their country against the Islamic State."

PRESIDENT MILOS ZEMAN: [translated] The majority of these illegal migrants are young, well-supported men. And I’m asking why these men are not fighting for the freedom of their country against the Islamic State. Why are they not working for their country and its improvement, so that their country overcomes its current state of underdevelopment?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Czech president speaking Tuesday. Peter Bouckaert, your response?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, a lot of these men are fleeing because they do not want to fight for Assad. They do not want to be part of the killing machine. And a lot of Afghans are fleeing from Iran, because they do not want to be forced by Iran to go fight for Assad in Syria. I think that’s a noble reason to flee, to not want to be a killer. But it is important, on the other hand, that these people are accommodated, that their children can be educated. There are 400,000 children, Syrian children, out of school in Turkey alone. If we do not provide them with an education, there is no future for Syria, because nobody will be able to run the country in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the U.S.’s responsibility for these refugees, in the original cause?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, we are faced with a generational crisis in the Middle East. These conflicts really are a challenge to our generation. And we need a global response. We all need to do our part, including the U.S. and Canada and Australia, to accommodate these refugees, to provide them with safe refuge, to help educate their children, and ultimately to help resolve the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, because the roots—

AMY GOODMAN: How did the crisis get started?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Yes, it’s absolutely true that Afghanistan was invaded by the United States in 2001 and Iraq was invaded in 2003. Many mistakes were made in terms of the policies adopted. And so we do also have a moral responsibility towards these people fleeing the consequences of our actions, to some degree.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, then come back and play a report by Human Rights Watch, the refugees on the ground. Then Barbara Lee will also be joining us, Congressmember Barbara Lee. And we’ll go to Paris to talk with climate activists. Will marches be allowed after the Paris attacks? Stay with us.


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