The Perils of Political Rhetoric in the Refugee Crisis

During Sunday evening’s second presidential debate, Republican nominee Donald Trump was asked about his plan to prevent the fall of the besieged city of Aleppo, to which he remarked: “it basically has fallen.” He adamantly opposed the plan of his running mate Gov. Mike Pence, and his words signaled the city was a lost cause. Last month, current Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson asked,“What is Aleppo?” unwittingly unveiling his ignorance of the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. Both remarks belittle the severity of the crisis. Trump’s dismissiveness — coupled with his proposed ban on Muslims — preys on existing fears of terrorism at the expense of those fleeing for their lives.

Such political rhetoric in this election season has been rampant, and affects how we perceive refugees. More importantly, it dilutes our sense of accountability.

As we know from Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, the treatment of Native Americans in the United States, and other examples repeated throughout history, dehumanization clears the path to violence. Powerful, demeaning language has led us to literally reduce refugees to numbers. Numbers may put the magnitude of the crisis in perspective, but repeated numbering does not encapsulate the daily struggle of refugees.

Ultimately, it is politicians who have fostered a xenophobic climate with their charged rhetoric, instilling fear into citizens of the dangers of welcoming refugees. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments on the “swarm” of migrants crossing the Mediterranean has shaped the perception of those entering the European Union, and Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban has blatantly expressed his views stating, “every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk…For us migration is not a solution but a problem…not medicine but a poison, we don’t need it and won’t swallow it.” U.S. presidential candidates have stressed the hazards of opening borders, despite the United States having one of the lowest rates of entry, and European countries have closed borders altogether, striving to preserve their national identities. Such rhetoric does not just impact the psyche of refugees; it tears at our social fabric.

We listen to numbers of refugees and become immune to the Syrian experience, numb to the casualties in the crisis, and intolerant to opening our borders. We forget they too were doctors, engineers, teachers, ambitious students, and children who enjoyed playing soccer. We forget they did not choose this life. It took the widely circulated photo of a drowned 3-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, to remind millions to elicit empathy for refugees.

Interestingly, we conditionally humanize this conflict. The recent image of 5-year-old Syrian boy, Omran Daqneesh, who survived an airstrike in Aleppo, or the valiant Olympic Syrian refugee, Yusra Mardini, who swam for three hours at sea to push a sinking boat of twenty, evoke attention in the media, racking up Facebook shares and tweets. But, the 6.5 million internally displaced within Syria in urgent need of humanitarian assistance does not concern us.

The hypocrisy above reveals the power of malignant rhetoric prevalent in domestic and international politics: it has transformed our othering of the world’s most vulnerable population into falsely justifiable inaction. Furthermore, the proliferation of technologies such as biometric identification used to process refugees, has further spurred our inhumane outlook of refugees.

Last fall, government officials in the Czech Republic used felt markers to write numbers on the hands and arms of refugees — mostly from Syria — at the Breclav railway station. The harrowing parallel to Nazi Germany’s marking of Jews is chilling.

Yet increasingly, felt-tip markers and fingerprinting are supplanted by emerging technologies to process migrants. Iris scanners and other forms of biometric identification have been used to track more than 1.6 million refugees to date. While there are certainly meaningful reasons for utilizing such identification, for example to monitor cross-border movement of potential terrorists and human smugglers, it nonetheless can dehumanize.

Stringent quotas restricting the entry of refugees have been passed in a number of countries. The push to streamline the identification of refugees has led to unequal ranking systems of national identities. The European Union created a three-tier structure, giving preferential treatment to Syrians over other nationalities. Refugees fleeing from other war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq are processed in different camps, resulting in a secondary class of people who are not only processed slower, but receive less humanitarian support because their countries do not fit the “refugee profile.” The idea that an individual has to sacrifice a part of his or her identity in exchange for timely registration and access to basic necessities reflects the failure in governance of the European Union, and is frankly a debasement of humanity. The line between identifying refugees and ranking them must be distinctive, and further demonstrates our disregard in displaying humane treatment towards fleeing refugees.

In the spring of 2016, German parliament passed new asylum regulations, following the government’s decision to send a charter plane of Afghan migrants back to Kabul. Ironically, being Syrian has become valuable for a refugee seeking to travel quickly through a country and has led to a rise in fake Syrian passports, with refugees scrapping their national identities. Afghan and Iraqi refugees must now not only forego their identities, they must alter them. While the current rhetoric revolves around Syrians, our actions, or lack thereof, have impacted other refugees. After mistreatment from government officials, some refugees, like Iraqi Ahmed al-Jawad, claim that dying in Iraq is better than being humiliated. What we fail to acknowledge is that we cannot view this conflict as a numbers game. There is a human element to a 5-year civil war, and ranking individual nationalities, or analogizing a group of refugees to pests, fosters apathy.

Although progress in settling refugees is being made, glaring deficiencies remain. The identification of refugees should be expedited to maintain efficiency, but it should not come at the expense of stratifying humans by nationalities. Similarly, the media and politicians must be conscious of the words they use because such language can dehumanize asylum-seeking families, eroding the values of pluralism, empathy, and tolerance we strive to preserve. As we partake in the discussion of refugees, we must be mindful of the societal consequences of singling human beings. Equally important, this upcoming November we must decide whether “making America great again” should come at the expense of our humanity.