When Donald Trump issued his now-notorious travel ban on Friday it was couched mainly in terms of protecting the US from terrorism. Framing it in this way gave its racist undertones an aura of respectability, though thankfully there were millions of people who refused to be fooled. Many opponents of the ban have characterised it as an attack on Muslims, and to a large extent it is. But, no less importantly, it is also an attack on refugees.
Syrian refugees are now permanently banned from the US unless or until Trump decrees otherwise. His executive order [text here] has also suspended admission of refugees from other countries for 120 days, pending a review of screening procedures "to ensure that those approved for refugee admission do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States". This is in line with the alt-right meme that refugees are likely to be terrorists in disguise.
After 120 days refugee admissions can resume but "only for nationals of countries for which the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Director of National Intelligence have jointly determined that such additional procedures are adequate to ensure the security and welfare of the United States".
The inevitable result of this is that refugees from other countries besides Syria will be refused admission purely on grounds of their nationality – which is blatantly discriminatory.
Another likely effect of the executive order is that the refugees who get turned away will be those with the most desperate needs – for example, if they come from failed or failing states (such as Yemen and Somalia), or countries where the government is hostile towards the US. This is because the new screening procedures, as outlined by Trump, will rely heavily on foreign governments to provide "adequate information" about citizens applying for entry to the United States. "Adequate information" is least likely to be available from countries where order has broken down and large numbers of people are fleeing.
Trump's decree also favours non-Muslim refugees over Muslim refugees, though the wording is not quite so explicit. It says that after the 120 days priority will be given to "refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution" but adds: "provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality". There is no obvious explanation for the added phrase other than Islamophobia.
The idea of protecting members of minority faiths but not of majority faiths fails to recognise the true nature of religious persecution in the Middle East. Christians and other religious minorities are certainly persecuted but the most systematic and probably most common kinds involve Muslims persecuting other Muslims – not only Sunni versus Shia but individual Muslims with unorthodox views who find themselves accused of blasphemy or apostasy.
These obnoxious measures in Trump's executive order should be viewed in the light of his electoral "promise" to shut refugees out of the United States. To quote his words on the campaign trail: "We're going to have a country again ... right now, we don't have a country."
It's also worth noting that according to the Politico website two key figures involved in the executive order were Stephen Miller and Stephen Bannon. Bannon, former head of the racist Breitbart News, is probably the most sinister of Trump's senior appointees. Besides being a member of the regime's inner circle, he now also has a place on the National Security Council's “principals committee” despite his lack of experience in that field.
Miller, meanwhile, is a former staffer of Jeff Sessions who, as a Republican senator, campaigned vigorously against refugees, claiming they pose a threat to national security (see previous blog post). Sessions is now Trump's nominee for the post of attorney general, to replace the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, who was dismissed yesterday after questioning the legality of the executive order.
US weather "too cold" for refugees
Trump, of course, claims to love refugees – "I have a tremendous heart, I want to take care of people" – but he doesn't want them in the United States. He also thinks the American weather, and the language spoken in the US, isn't really suitable for them. His "solution", therefore, is to create "safe zones" for them elsewhere – in places like Syria and Yemen.
On the campaign trail, he told supporters:
"In Syria, take a big swatch of land, which believe me, you get for the right price, okay? You take a big swatch and you don't destroy all of Europe ... What I'd like is build a safe zone, it's here, build a big beautiful safe zone and you have whatever it is so people can live, and they'll be happier.
"I mean they're gonna learn German [if they go to Germany], they're gonna learn all these different languages. It's ridiculous. The weather – a friend of mine lives in Minnesota. And he calls me, he says 'Can you imagine? It's 130 degrees in Syria and now they want to send some up to Minnesota where its 30 degrees.' Well, these people are gonna be very, very unhappy. It's cold and beautiful, but it's cold."
Trump mentioned this plan (such as it is) in phone calls on Sunday to King Salman of Saudi Arabia and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi in the UAE – and allegedly secured their support.
During his conversation with the king, according to the White House website, Trump "requested and the king agreed to support safe zones in Syria and Yemen, as well as supporting other ideas to help the many refugees who are displaced by the ongoing conflicts".
During his conversation with the Crown Prince, he "raised the idea of supporting safe zones for the refugees displaced by the conflict in the region, and the Crown Prince agreed to support this initiative".
Flight of fantasy
Creating safe zones of the kind Trump apparently envisages is a difficult and complex business. They are probably unworkable in Syria and creating them in Yemen (a country which Trump doesn't seem to have mentioned before in this connection) is a practical impossibility and a flight of fantasy.
On the Council on Foreign Relations website, Micah Zenko, who has been studying and writing about safe zones for years, poses 15 questions that the Trump regime should answer before its "safe zone" proposals can be taken seriously. Here they are:
- What is the ultimate political objective of the safe zones? For example, will they provide temporary humanitarian refuge for internally displaced persons, or leverage for a brokered peace agreement?
- What is the domestic legal basis for them?
- As the sovereign government of Syria will presumably oppose them, what is the international legal basis?
- Where exactly within Syria or Yemen will they be located, and why were those locations chosen?
- Will non-combatants as well as rebel groups residing within the safe zones be protected? If not, how will residents be vetted, and who will do the vetting?
- Will those residing within safe zones be protected from all forms of harm, including aerial bombing, artillery shelling, small arms fire, sniper fire, starvation, and lack of clean drinking water and sanitation?
- Will those residing within safe zones be protected from harm by all perpetrators (including by Russian fighter-bombers and U.S.-backed rebel groups in Syria, or by indiscriminate Saudi airstrikes in Yemen)?
- Which countries will provide the military forces for the many tasks required to enforce the safe zones (suppression of enemy air defenses, logistical support, combat search and rescue, etc.)?
- Which groups or states will provide humanitarian assistance and be allowed access to those residing in the safe zones?
- Critically, who provides the ground forces to enforce and patrol the safe zones?
- Which nearby countries will allow safe zone forces basing and overflight rights, and for which missions specifically?
- Who has ultimate command authority for however many countries contribute forces?
- What military doctrine and rules of engagement will guide those forces enforcing the safe zones?
- Will force be used to prohibit arms groups from using the safe zones to shield their activities or recruit fighters, as they inevitably will try to do?
- Who pays, and for how long?