The world is currently being forced to confront an unprecedented crisis of forced migration, and the tension in the current public discourse surrounding it is undeniable. For many, the refugee crisis is closely related to terrorism for many reasons, some more legitimate than others. Unfortunately, that association – and the fear that accompanies it – has been opportunistically leveraged by President Donald Trump and others hoping to ride a wave of nativist xenophobia to elected office. This toxic political rhetoric has included twisting data on crime statistics, painting a false perception between refugees and crime – hurting the stance on immigration alongside people’s hopes for a better life. While public attitudes toward asylum seekers have been hotly debated in the U.S. since the election, and reached a fever pitch after Trump’s failed first attempt at a travel ban, Trump’s impulsive decision to respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria gives the debate new urgency.
Trump’s comments on Sweden during a campaign-style speech in February led to confusion from both Swedes and non-Swedes alike. Sweden, which welcomed 160,000 foreigners in 2015, was called out by the president after watching a documentary highlighting Sweden’s acceptance of migrants and their crime rates. While he attributed his remarks to a report featured by Fox News the night before, the claim that Sweden had experienced a surge in gun violence and rape following asylum applications in 2015 was spurious. Data shows that Sweden accepted more than 160,000 refugees that year (more than any other country) but experienced no surge in said violence. In fact, while rape rates in Sweden are higher than in other European countries, this is due to a policy change in 2005. Each act of sexual violence now counts for one separate attack as opposed to “one victim, one type of crime, one record.”
While the influx of migrants has been claimed by some to parallel such crimes, there is no relationship between the two trends. Rather, filmmaker Ami Horowitz is facing serious allegations for misconstruing and editing footage of Swedish police officers. Consequently, Trump’s misinterpretation speaks volumes on the importance of fact-checking; he, unfortunately, amplified the stigma surrounding refugees based on a faulty Fox News segment with non-credible references.
Recent U.S. military action in Syria adds insult to injury as inconsistent decision-making creates an incoherent policy toward the Syrian civil war. In rapid succession, U.S.-led coalition killed 30 civilians in Raqqa in an airstrike meant for IS forces. The next week, both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley made clear that the U.S. has no interest in removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. Then, in a stunning change of course, President Trump ordered air strikes against the Shayrat air base in central Syria in response to a chemical attack that killed dozens of Syrian civilians this past week, the first time the U.S. has intervened directly with regime forces. Multiple officials insisted that Trump had been deeply moved by images of Syrian children screaming in pain after exposure to sarin gas – the same children in whose face he vowed boldly to slam the door of American asylum. The hypocrisy has not gone unnoticed.
Many are concerned that the U.S. involvement would only cause further destruction to the region, and for good reason. Continued military action will inevitably prolong Syria’s civil war, displacing civilians in even greater numbers. Will Trump’s new-found sense of compassion and moral outrage drive him to fulfill our moral obligation to receive refugees as our own military actions drive them to flee their homes? Will he disavow his previous statements that falsely painted a correlation between crime and immigration? As leader of the free world, he has the power to ultimately change people’s perceptions of refugees. Instead of misinterpreting the media and encouraging others to close the doors on those fleeing their war-torn homes, he should push for policy to ensure equity for all regardless of who they are. We would only be retrogressing if we allow biased media and ongoing negative attitudes cloud our beliefs on refugees. Now that U.S. military action could be creating more of them, perpetuating such narratives for political gain comes at a grave moral cost. It is only when our leaders have the courage to shift this paradigm that false perceptions can be rewritten and global relationships can be established.