Neil Shenvi - Apologetics

Thinking about the Syrian refugee crisis

The discussion of US immigration policy and the Syrian refugee crisis is a difficult one. In what follows, I'll use the deliberately non-standard terms 'pro-reduction' and 'anti-reduction' to refer to people who are for or against the reduction of the number of Syrian refugees accepted by the US.

The 'pro-reduction' case

The main arguments in favor of the 'pro-reduction' position are economics and security.

First, those in favor of reduction are correct that resettling Syrians in the US is costly. Estimates range from $10,000 to $60,000 per refugee. Even if we believe that we have a personal moral obligation to care for refugees (as I do), it is not immediately clear whether it is permissible to force other taxpayers to assume the cost of that resettlement, especially if they are vocally opposed to it.

Second, it also is true that resettling the refugees in neighboring countries is far more cost-effective. For example, the cost of resettling a refugee in Turkey is approximately $2,500. So if we are truly committed to helping as many refugees as possible, one could argue that we should devote our resources to foreign aid, allowing us to help 4-times to 24-times as many refugees as we could by resettling them here.

Third, our government has a greater obligation to US citizens than to non-citizens. For example, our government is obligated to protect US citizens from foreign invasion, but surely has less of an obligation to protect Russian citizens from foreign invasion. Thus, it is legitimate to ask whether our government should give greater weight to the interests of American citizens than to the interests of non-citizens.

Finally, it is true that accepting Syrian refugees does carry some risk of terrorism. It is incorrect to suggest that all such fears are utterly baseless.

The 'anti-reduction' case

In response to these points, the anti-reduction position can assert:

First, we could argue that a human life is worth far more than $60,000. While costly, the current refugee resettlement program amounts to 0.01% of our tax revenue. Given the moral significance of the expenditure, it is justifiable. Additionally, because almost all laws impose morality, it can indeed be permissible to compel people to fulfill their moral obligations, even over their opposition. For example, very, very few people would say that it's morally impermissible to use tax dollars to care for the severely mentally disabled, even though we are compelling some small number of people to pay for a moral good which they vocally oppose.

Second, we could argue that by accepting the refugees onto US soil, we are setting an example for the rest of the world, reaffirming our core humanitarian values, and increasing our moral capital as a superpower. Resettling them elsewhere would not achieve these goals.

Third, the fact that the government has a greater obligation to citizens does not mean that it must ignore the needs of non-citizens.

Finally, the terrorism risk of Syrian refugees looks to be extremely low. In the last 16 years, the US has resettled approximately 2 million refugees. In that time, three Americans have been killed by refugees in terrorist attacks. In other words, the probability that an American will be killed in a refugee terrorist attack is approximately 200 times smaller than the probability that they will be killed by lightning. A 'pro-reduction' advocate could argue that even one American life is not worth risking. However, that argument ignores the other side of the equation: the number of innocent Syrian lives that could be saved. For example, if even 10% of the 2 million refugees we accepted would die without our aid, then the government would have to value 1 American life more than 70,000 refugee lives.

Alternatively, a 'pro-reduction' advocate could argue that Syrian refugees pose a unique risk that was not present in earlier refugees. However, even under the most radical assumptions, the terror threat from Syrian refugees seems small. For example, approximately 150,000 Syrian refugees have sought asylum in Europe and since 2015, there have been approximately 300 terror-related murders. Let's make the obviously false assumption that 10% of these murders were perpetrated by Syrian refugees. Even using this rate, the risk of an American being murdered by one of the roughly 15,000 Syrian refugees admitted to the US in 2016 would be roughly ten times smaller than being killed by a horse.


The central question in any discussion of our policy needs to be the moral one: is it morally permissible to reduce the number of Syrian refugees to whom we grant asylum given that they are innocents fleeing from unimaginable terror and death? While economics can't be entirely ignored, the stakes involved make it far less important. No Americans will die if we use 0.01% of our annual tax revenue to save the lives of tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children in imminent danger. Security risks are relevant, since we have a moral duty to protect American citizens, and nothing can be known with utter certainty. But even liberal estimates show that Syrian refugees pose an negligible security threat, especially when offset against the tens of thousands of lives saved.

Having said that, I believe that the argument for resettlement in neighboring countries is a strong one. I did not expect to reach that conclusion when I began investigating this issue, but it's the conclusion that I did reach. I recognize that many people who advocate 'overseas resettlement' may be doing so to avoid having to provide any assistance at all and that this attitude is wrong. But bad motivations do not change good arguments. If American diplomacy can convince local foreign nations to accept additional Syrian refugees, whose expenses will be fully funded by the United States, then this option would maximize the number of refugees that we can help. Note that this solution is by no means an excuse to do nothing; it is only a recommendation regarding the optimal way to help.

In closing, I'd like to suggest how we should and should not advocate for Syrian refugees. My suspicion is that many people in the 'pro-reduction' camp -when shown the data on the minuscule risks involved and especially the plight of the refugees- would be willing to provide aid. Very few are monsters who despise foreigners. Many are simply afraid. We all make risk/benefits and sacrifice often takes courage. Consequently, the very worst approach to take is to assume that people's motives are hateful or racist; a charitable attitude will make people far more open to considering other perspectives.

To that end, I'd suggest using the following illustration, which shows how ready people can be to accept great risk and economic cost for the sake of what is right.

Most Americans -whether liberal or conservative- will agree that it was right for us to enter World War II. However, their justification of this decision almost never invokes national interest, economic benefits, low risk, or national prestige. Invariably, Americans invoke the Holocaust. It was right for us to intervene because millions of innocent men, women, and children were being butchered. We had to stop it. It would have been wrong to allow the Holocaust to continue, even though the Holocaust didn't directly affect Americans, even though the war was expensive (35% of our GDP), and even though we lost 400,000 of our soldiers, many of whom were drafted involuntarily.

The analogy to the current Syrian refugee crisis seems clear. We are faced with the opportunity to save the lives of tens of thousands of innocent people. Doing so comes at a cost, both in terms of money and danger. But it will come at far less of a cost and at far less of a risk than we ever faced during WWII. If we recognize the heroism, courage, and moral obligation we had to save the lives of millions being killed in Nazi Germany, it seems we have even more reason to sacrifice to save the lives of those being killed in Syria.

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If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller. It is phenomenal. Free sermons treating many of the topics covered by this book can be found

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