Our Forgotten Moral Obligation to Refugees

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

In 1936, my grandmother, ten years old at the time, walked to the tram stop to head back from school, like she did every day. The tram driver refused to let her on, telling her that Jews weren’t allowed. She instead walked back, arriving home more than two hours late.

When her father, my great-grandfather, heard about the latest setback, he decided that enough was enough and was determined to get his family out of Germany. His friends told him that he was overreacting, and that the anti-Semitism would soon blow over. He refused to be swayed, stuffed his gold into the legs of the chairs he was able to pack—Jews were not allowed to take valuables if they left the country—and applied for an English visa. Thankfully, his application was accepted, and they fled to London, where they spent the rest of the war in relative safety. Had my grandmother and her family not evacuated when they did, they likely would have perished in the Holocaust, like most of the other Jews from Breslau did.

My grandfather had a very different experience. He was already a young man by the time World War II started, and his family did not evacuate in time. He and his entire family were taken to Buchenwald, where his grandmother, mother, and both sisters were murdered. He was the only member of his family to survive. He escaped Buchenwald and fled to America, where he enlisted in the Army almost immediately and fought in the waning years of the war.

The United States was apathetic towards the plight of Jews during World War II, including the infamous rejection of the MS St. Louis, a boat carrying nearly a thousand Jewish refugees. About a quarter of those thousand refugees perished in camps. The US did not choose to get involved in the Second World War even when they found out about the concentration camps; they only got involved once they were directly attacked by Japan. The US did not feel that the extermination of Jews, people with disabilities, the Romani, Jehovah’s Witnesses, black people, and many other groups the Nazis deemed inferior was worth the war that intervention would inevitably provoke.

Unfortunately, America’s lack of empathy towards those fleeing the horrors of war, famine, and disaster has not improved very much. The Trump administration is expected to cap the number of refugees admitted for the next fiscal year to somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000, the lowest since 1986 when the Reagan administration created a cap of 67,000. To put in context, five million Syrians have become refugees since 2013, and six million other Syrians are internally displaced. The ethnic cleansing conducted by the military of Myanmar has caused 168,000 Rohingya to flee Myanmar in the last five years, and there is little indication that that flow of refugees will stop for the foreseeable future. Not to mention the refugees that climate change has already created and will continue to create, including estimated up to two billion people because of rising sea levels by 2100, or one-fifth of the world’s population. Refugees continue to flee violence and persecution, and that is unlikely to suddenly stop, especially given Trump’s shockingly idiotic and uninformed foreign policy.

Political leaders, more often (but not exclusively) Republicans, often tout the safety of Americans as a reason for not accepting refugees, since there could be terrorists posing as refugees among the refugees admitted. This argument isn’t entirely unreasonable; if the U.S. admits millions of refugees, it is possible that one of them will have violent tendencies. However, Americans have about a 0.00003% chance of being killed by a foreign-born terrorist, while they are about 382 times more likely to die in a car accident. The potential harm caused by a few refugees is incomparable to the tens of thousands of lives saved.

Moreover, to say that protecting Americans necessitates rejecting refugees implies that the lives of Americans are more important than the lives of others. The lottery of where a person is born should not determine their value, and to deny the most vulnerable people in our world entry to safety denies their human worth. The life of an American is not worth more than that of a Syrian, and we would do well as a country to remember that.

Although the morality of accepting refugees would outweigh any economic loss they might cause, the U.S. doesn’t have to choose between the two. According to senior UN advisor Jeffrey Sachs, although the effects are complicated and distributed unevenly, refugees have a net positive impact on the US economy. Not only would we be providing a safe haven to these people fleeing life-threatening situations, but we would also help those who are already here.

If England hadn’t accepted my grandmother’s family or if the US hadn’t accepted my grandfather, they almost certainly would have been murdered in Germany. Instead, here I am, seventy-five years later. The opportunity to provide safety to countless families in the next few decades is not only our obligation as fellow human beings. It should be our aspiration to fulfill those famous words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” How can we live up to this promise as a nation if we continue to reject people fleeing certain death?

Featured image courtesy of Cincinnati Public Radio


  1. A timely piece. America’s political landscape has become a refuge for scoundrels. They represent not the will of the majority or even the interests of the nation. They have chosen to placate the basest motives of a wealthy and powerful minority whose primary creed appears to be the preservation of their hard earned money through destruction of the social safety nets that keep the middle and lower classes from falling into ruin. The fact that Republicans (yes, you can stick it on them, they earned it) continue to flack minorities and refugees as the ruin of the nation rather than the building blocks of how we became a nation, should disgust everyone. It won’t change until people start realizing that their vote actually does matter. Vote the scoundrels out.

  2. You wrote: “The life of an American is not worth more than that of a Syrian, and we would do well as a country to remember that.” I disagree.

    Is your life worth more to you than the life of a Syrian refugee? Are the lives of your family members worth more to you than the lives of Syrian refugees? If you answer yes to either of these questions, how can you say that the lives of your countrymen are not worth more than the lives of people who live in distant lands, who, by the way, don’t give a rat’s ass whether you live or die?

    • Sir, I think that you might find Breitbart or the Daily Stormer more to your tastes. On those sites, it is considered socially acceptable to only care about the lives of English-speaking white people of specific cultures.

      At Swarthmore, however, we prefer the idea that every life is equally valuable, and that refusing to accept starving, desperate refugees into one’s country because of nebulous fears of terrorism and/or outright racism is a pretty shitty thing to do.

      Lemme turn the tables on you. Do you think that the lives of ethnic Bengalis are worth more than ethnic Rohingyas who are fleeing from Myanmar’s most recent attempt at genocide? Do you think that the lives of Turks are worth more than those of Yazidis or Kurds?

      You see, we already know how this story goes. We’ve seen it happen. Once you start putting lives in a hierarchy based on nationality or ethnicity, you have to put someone on top and someone on the bottom. And then you start saying “we don’t really /need/ those people on the bottom, their lives don’t really mean anything, not next to ours”. Then the economy of your country hits some bad times, and a charismatic guy who looks really stupid and is regularly mocked for his appearance and loudmouthed bullshit-spewing comes along and says, “let’s make our country great again, get rid of all those inferior people whose lives mean nothing, kick them all out, they’re all traitors and criminals!” He gets voted in because, after all, who gives a shit about those people on the bottom whose lives mean nothing because of their nationality/skin color/language/religion? He brings his buddies into power with him, and says “Alright, who wants to murder those people on the bottom? Because I want to murder all those people on the bottom and I think most of you are OK with that, since after all we all know they’re worthless and probably dangerous to the state and their lives mean nothing.” And once the guy’s buddies are done nodding in agreement and funny little Heinrich is off in the corner writing his Thor fanfic and doodling runes on everything, that one really creepy guy who never quite smiles like a living person should who works for the charismatic guy says, “lemme get back to you, I’m pretty sure the economy can sustain a few death camps if you make me head of the secret police.” Then the charismatic guy says “OK, now that Reinhard got the nuts and bolts of my brilliant plan down (here, you can be head of the secret police, Reinhard, and you can be in charge of one of our puppet regimes, too), let’s invade the neighbors and murder all the inferior people, who cares about them, their lives are less valuable than ours.”

      Then when America and Russia finish pounding Germany into submission, the really creepy guy is assassinated, the charismatic guy kills himself and leaves the rest of the country to the wolves, and 11 million people are dead (not counting combat casualties and people who starved outside of the death camps).

      When you start saying “my life/the lives of my family members/the lives of people of my culture are worth more than those of people from another country”, you’re taking the first step on a VERY dangerous and slippery slope.

  3. Why should the US be the place for “millions of refugees?” Why not China, or Russia, or Iran? Why can’t those countries be the place of choice for all these millions?

    Perhaps only a small number of these people (you put the risk at a 0.00003% chance) will be terrorists. But suppose only one of these millions of people committed a Las Vegas-style massacre. Would that be an insignificant event? If so, why all the commotion about what did happen in Las Vegas? Maybe that massacre should have been a page-12 story.

    Besides criminality, taking in large numbers (you suggest millions) of people who do not share American culture or values, can lead to large-scale social problems. Just for one example, there is the epidemic of rape in Sweden and in northern British cities that is the result of large-scale Muslim immigration. Perhaps all these rapes are just the price women should have to pay so that we can feel good about ourselves for being kind to refugees.

    • First, it is interesting you bring up the Las Vegas Massacre, an act of terrorism conducted by an American. I would challenge you to provide me with examples of refugees causing acts of terrorism within the US. We have the most stringent screening process in the world, and so we can avoid the issues Europe has faced in this area. Your whole argument of the .00003% being relevant is ridiculous. We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good in this case. I’m sure you drive a car, and like he said the chance of you dying from that is higher. In fact, your chance of dying from choking on food is higher than your chance of dying as a result of a refugee. I assume you don’t eat all your meals at a snail’s pace?
      More importantly, millions of people won’t come to the US. They do go to other countries, but we need to allow more in because the other countries are reaching their capacities resource-wise, especially in Europe. You ask why any other country can’t do it? Well they can. But China and Russia(like you mention) have authoritarian regimes, and they don’t care about liberty or human rights. It’s our responsibility to care. The United States prides itself on being on the moral high ground when discussing democracy and human rights; let’s follow through on that.
      Second, there was never a such thing as a uniquely American culture. We are a “melting pot”; what makes us great is the fact that we have so many cultures represented in our one country. Having refugees come in would provide us with new perspectives on the world.
      Third, I do think that my life isn’t worth more than that of a refugee. Just because I was born in one place, doesn’t make me inherently more valuable than someone else. I don’t think that pure luck affects intrinsic human value.
      Finally, your argument about northern British cities and Sweden. I would like to see a statistic on the epidemic of rape in Sweden and how that is directly caused by refugees. Data shows an increase in rape cases in Sweden, but there is no definite link between that and an increase in refugees. Same with the northern British cities. The information that is available shows a link between severe income inequality and sexual assault–a problem that comes when we don’t value humans equally. Perhaps all these assertions stated as facts are just the price we have to pay to defend honorable writers from the uninformed

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