U.S. Responsibility in the Refugee Crisis

By Nicole Kunzler Pearce for GlobalJusticeBlog.com

The Syrian/Iraq War has created a refugee crisis unlike any the world has seen. Nearly 5 million Syrians have fled their homes and country.[1] Another 6.6 million remain internally displaced.[2] Bringing the total number of refugees to nearly 11 million individuals living as refugees, half of those being children.[3] Most of these refugees are located in Turkey (2.7 million), Lebanon (1.5 million), and Jordan (1.2 million).[4] Many other countries have taken refugees in the hundreds and tens of thousands. Including Greece, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Sweden and Canada. The United States has promised to take 10,000 and currently has just over 3,000 refugees.[5] For those of you keeping track, that means that when all is said and done, the U.S. intends to take less than .1% of the refugees from this crisis. Here’s why that just isn’t enough.

U.S. Involvement in the Creation of ISIS

The United States invaded Iraq in March of 2003.[6] As part of this invasion, the U.S. dismantled Saddam Hussein’s entire governmental structure.[7] Hundreds of thousands of civil and military personnel who were formerly loyal to Hussein (nearly all of them Sunni) were left without jobs, and feeling completely disenfranchised under the new governmental regime.[8] Al Qaeda quickly capitalized on their feelings and quickly established Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).[9]  While Hussein’s government was secular, his supporters were able to find common ground with the jihadists of Al Qaeda, with the U.S. as their common enemy.[10] AQI waged an insurgency against U.S. troops on the ground, as well as on the Iran-backed Shiite militias in central Iraq and bombed hotels in Jordan.[11] Many members of AQI were imprisoned in the U.S.-run “Camp Bucca.” Radicalization and planning ran rampant throughout Camp Bucca. “The flame [of radicalization] was nurtured at U.S.-organized prisons such as Camp Bucca, where religious detainees mingled with members of Saddam’s Baath Party…”[12] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current head of ISIS was a “graduate” of this intense program of radicalization at Camp Bucca.[13]

In 2007, the Shiite government (put in place by the U.S.) began reaching out to Sunni tribes to encourage them to reject the AQI.[14] These efforts, along with the U.S. military “surge” all but defeated the AQI and things seemed to be stabilizing.[15] Shortly after this supposed stabilization, the Arab Spring and civil war in Syria allowed the nearly destroyed AQI to gain a foothold in Syria.[16] AQI frequently travelled back and forth to Syria during the Iraq War to get supplies and had many contacts there. When peaceful Arab Spring uprisings turned violent, and the Syrian president began attacking his own people, AQI moved in and established their presence.[17] AQI renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). After some spats among existing rebel groups, ISIS became the first rebel group to win significant victories in Syria, capturing two major cities. In the summer of 2014, ISIS also captured Mosul in Iraq and drove south until it was on the border of Baghdad. Upon capturing Mosul, ISIS liberated the prison there, the men held in these radicalized prisons joined the ranks of ISIS by the thousands.[18] A few weeks later, ISIS declared itself a Caliphate and demanded that all Muslims pledge allegiance. Groups like the Boko Haram in Nigeria and Ansar Beit Al Maqdis in Egypt began flying black flags in support of ISIS.[19] ISIS also launched an aggressive social media and viral video campaign to gain sympathizers and glorify violence. Drowning, burning, beheading, and institutionalized slavery and rape became weapons of control for ISIS and the reason so many began to flee Syria.

It is difficult to pinpoint one event or one cause that lead to ISIS and the Syrian Refugee Crisis. Really, it was a little bit of everything. But it is also impossible to look at the situation and not see the U.S.’s involvement. The U.S. ran Camp Bucca and imprisoned Hussein loyalists there, giving them common ground with Al Qaeda. The U.S. funneled money and arms into the Syrian Civil War, causing even greater destabilization, with many of these resources ending up in the hands of ISIS.[20] The U.S. withdrew from Iraq, leaving behind Iraqi forces that were not prepared to handle the attacks brought on by ISIS.[21] As stated by David Ignatius, in its attempts to topple authoritarian regimes, the U.S. and their allies have left power vacuums in the Middle East that have been filled by radicals and extremists.[22] As ISIS gains more territory, more people are driven from their homes.

An Opportunity to be Better

Perhaps you disagree with me. Perhaps you believe that the U.S. is blameless in the creation of ISIS and that bad people will simply do bad things. Perhaps you believe that this was coming long before our involvement. Perhaps you believe that the U.S. doesn’t “owe” any help to any country or their citizens. Maybe that is true. But even if that is true, refusing refugees only furthers ISIS’s end goal. ISIS wants there to be a rift so large between Muslims and the Western/Judeo-Christian world that radicalization is the only choice. If we refuse refugees this rift only widens.

Do we want to do exactly what ISIS hopes we will do? Do we want to be a country that turns away those in need? That allows fear and xenophobia to rule our decisions? Do we want to repeat the mistakes of a previous generation who turned away Jewish refugees during the holocaust[23] and imprisoned Japanese Americans during World War II? Or do we want to learn from our past mistakes?

It is time we learn from our past mistakes. While the U.S. has given a significant amount in aid to help these refugees, this is simply not enough. The fact of the matter is that these people need homes.  They need permanent resettlement, not just funding to keep them in refugee camps. Less than .1% of these individuals displaced will find refuge and safety in the U.S.

Turning away Jewish refugees and imprisoning Japanese Americans during WWII is not a bright spot in American history, but rather a blemish.  We have the opportunity once again to make a choice. Will we choose fear and hatred and turn away those in desperate need? Or will we choose inclusion, hope, and the opportunity to prevent radicalization in the next generation?

“Being a refugee may be a defining moment in the lives of those who are refugees, but being a refugee does not define them. Like countless thousands before them, this will be a period—we hope a short period—in their lives. Some of them will go on to be Nobel laureates, public servants, physicians, scientists, musicians, artists, religious leaders, and contributors in other fields. Indeed, many of them were these things before they lost everything. This moment does not define them, but our response will help define us.”[24]

Nicole Kunzler Pearce is a 3L at the S.J. Quinney College of Law. During law school, she found a passion for criminal and international law matters. While in law school, she interned at the U.S. Attorney’s office in their Violent Crimes Division. She also had the opportunity to intern for U.S. Federal Magistrate Judge Paul M. Warner. Nicole has interned as a prosecutor at a local city attorney’s office under the third-year practice rule. Prior to attending law school, Nicole graduated cum laude from Utah State University where she majored in Law and Constitutional Studies and worked at the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. After graduation, Nicole intends to move to Dublin, Ireland for a year to gain some international experience.


[1] Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal, Syria Regional Refugee Response (April 20, 2016), http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php.

[2] Syrian Arab Republic, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (April 20, 2016), http://www.unocha.org/syria.

[3] See note 1.

[4] Refugees of the Syrian Civil War, Wikipedia (April 20, 2016), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refugees_of_the_Syrian_Civil_War.

[5] Id.

[6] Iraq War, Encyclopedia Britannica (April 20, 2016), http://www.britannica.com/event/Iraq-War.


[7] See note 1.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] David Ignatius, How ISIS Spread in the Middle East, The Atlantic (October 29, 2015), http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/10/how-isis-started-syria-iraq/412042/.

[13] Id.

[14] See note 1.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] See note 12

[19] See note 1.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] See note 12.

[23] See, Voyage of the St. Louis, Holocaust Encyclopedia (April 26, 2016), https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005267.

[24] Patrick Kearon, Refuge from the Storm (April, 2016), https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2016/04/refuge-from-the-storm?lang=eng.