The U.S. Response to Syrian Refugee Resettlement After Paris

The U.S. Response to Syrian Refugee Resettlement After Paris

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Eric P. Schwartz, professor and dean of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and former U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, discusses domestic reactions to the Paris and San Bernardino attacks and Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States, as part of CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative.


Eric P. Schwartz

Professor and Dean, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program & Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website at

We are delighted to have Eric Schwartz with us today to talk about refugee resettlement in the United States in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. Dean Schwartz is professor and dean at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He also currently serves as vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, having been appointed to the Commission by President Obama in 2013. Prior to that, Dean Schwartz was the U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, managing the State Department’s policy and programs for U.S. refugee admissions and U.S. international assistance worldwide. He’s held a number of other senior public service positions in government, at the United Nations, and in academia, and—including positons with the Connect U.S. Fund, Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as being—working here at the Council on Foreign Relations.

So, Eric, thank you very much for being with us today. We appreciate it.

In the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, some U.S. elected officials and presidential candidates have advocated restricting or banning the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States due to vulnerabilities within the resettlement program. So I thought it would be useful for us if you could start by giving us an overview of the current screening procedures for refugees and your assessment of vulnerabilities in the program.

SCHWARTZ: Sure, Irina. And as I—thank you very much. It’s a real pleasure to be here this afternoon. And I looked at the list of participants, and there are many friends and colleagues on the—on the line. So I’m really looking forward to the discussion.

I’ve been asked to talk, I think, for about 10 minutes, and that’s as long as I’ll speak. And with your permission, Irina, I will get to that issue—the issue of the safety and security of the screening process—but let me start, if I might, by—you know, before considering the concerns about the program and how the program addresses those concerns, it does seem reasonable for me to ask and for all of us to ask, why is this resettlement program so important if we’re only resettling a relatively modest number of the world’s refugees? And I want to talk about that first, and then I can—then I’ll get into the actual screening procedures themselves, if that’s OK.

You know, I believe this program—the refugee resettlement program in general, and the Syria refugee resettlement program in particular—communicates a critical commitment to responsibility sharing to governments in the region that are providing safe haven to the overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees. Turkey is hosting more than 2 million. Lebanon is host to more than a million. And Jordan’s numbers are estimated at well over 600,000. To be sure, the United States should be providing significant and substantial assistance and support of those governments as they seek to manage this particular burden, but for a limited number of Syrians who are among the most vulnerable, this third-country resettlement program is really a compelling priority. And our government must be prepared to make a modest commitment to resettlement.

It’s the neighboring countries that are bearing the overwhelming responsibilities of this challenge. And if we’re asking them, as indeed we are asking them, to continue to do so, and if we’re expecting their support for diplomatic and other efforts that we’re making—the United States is making—to reach a political settlement, it seems very counterproductive to me for us to be sending those governments such a negative signal by effectively shutting off our resettlement program for Syrians, which some—which some politicians would have us do.

Secondly, I think it’s really important that we recognize the responsibility of burden-sharing with our allies in Europe. If we’re urging, again, our European friends and allies to implement human policies and procedures on protection for hundreds of thousands or more of Syrians who have entered Europe, then it seems to me we ought to be demonstrating a commitment to provide resettlement opportunities for Syrians in the United States. Our failure to do so will not only be perceived as an expression of hypocrisy, but also as a reflection of really diminished leadership that could undermine our own capacity to influence European governments on diplomatic, on political, on military measures that we may ultimately believe are critical to addressing the conflict.

And third, I think we have to recognize that the battle against ISIS is a worldwide effort in which ISIS, in its use of social media and other means of communication, offers an apocalyptic vision of conflict, and of course rejects any notion of the compatibility of Islam with other traditions. Well, our refugee resettlement program—our refugee resettlement program, which has welcomed persecuted Muslims and others from around the world, is a highly effective rebuke of that preposterous notion. And if offers a model of inclusion not only for other governments around the world, but for people—for Muslims, for Christians, for Jews, and others. And conversely, imposing bars of unreasonable obstacles to the entry of particular groups of refugees risks playing into the very narrative that we’re trying to combat worldwide.

And I’d add that the elements of U.S. leadership on this question needs to go—need to go beyond refugee resettlement, much greater—and include a much greater effort of support for international humanitarian efforts and funding, especially funding and support for host governments in the region, as well as support for efforts to find a political solution to the crisis, because humanitarian crises, after all, don’t have humanitarian solutions. They have political solutions.

So, if I can get now to the question, in light of the importance of this—of this program, let me now get to the question that Irina asked: What questions should we be asking about the refugee resettlement program? And I think this is very important, as the wrong question can result in policy outcomes that are dysfunctional and ill-serve our interests.

So I’d like to start by talking about what we shouldn’t be asking. And we should not be asking whether the Syrian refugee resettlement program, or for that matter any refugee resettlement or immigration program, can guarantee—can guarantee against the admission of an individual who has ill intent. No program can do that.

To put this issue into perspective, between 2010 and 2013, some 4 million people entered our country to establish residence—to establish residence of one kind or another. And almost none of them received anything like the scrutiny that’s given to refugee applicants from Syria. We know well why the United States is prepared to encourage the entry of such large numbers of immigrants. It’s literally impossible to imagine that the United States would have grown so dramatically through our history in the absence of large-scale immigration, which is also helping us—helping us to avoid the demographic challenges that are bedeviling countries like Japan and others in Europe.

So, if that’s the case, how do we evaluate the security dimension of this Syrian resettlement effort? Well, in this program, applicants for refugee admissions are the most thoroughly vetted applicants in the U.S. immigration and refugee process. In the case of refugees, this involves reviews by federal intelligence, security, and law enforcement agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI Terrorist Screening Center, and the Departments of Homeland Security, State, and Defense. All applicants provide biometric and extensive biographical data, and undergo detailed interviews by officers of DHS to ensure that the applicants have bona fide claims and do not pose security risks. I’m convinced that these and other measures provide a robust degree of safeguards that more than justify the continuation of these programs in light of our national security and humanitarian interests that they serve.

So how to do this? If all this is true, how to do this in the context of our current politics? And here I believe that communities of faith have a critical role to play. I think we are in a(n) extremely fragile and critical moment in American history, and I think members of the religious community have got to recognize this fact and have got to stand up and exercise leadership.

I’m proud that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, on which I serve along with eight other commissioners appointed by both Democratic and Republican officeholders, has strongly affirmed in a recent statement the U.S. refugee resettlement program, including resettlement of Syrians.

So in conclusion, before we begin the discussion, let me—let me talk about an article I read recently in on November 18th. Daniel Gross wrote a compelling and poignant piece relating to kind of the issue we’re talking about. He wrote that—about an individual asylum claimant named Herbert Karl Friedrich Bahr, claiming to be a persecuted Jew who fled on the SS Drottningholm in 1942 to seek asylum in the United States. During what the writer, Gross, describes as, and I quote, “a meticulous interview process that involved five separate government agencies,” end quote, this story—the story of the asylum-seeker—unraveled. And Bahr was prosecuted and convicted for conspiracy and planned espionage.

Now, the tragedy of this story of course, is that the event helped to stoke anti-refugee sentiment in the United States, as well as the contention that Jews could be part of a fifth column of spies serving the Nazis. This sentiment contributed to restrictive immigration policies surrounding Jews threatened by the Holocaust, as U.S. officials turned their backs on those in need of protection.

As Gross notes in his piece, the historian Deborah Lipstadt wrote in her book, called “Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust,” she wrote that The New Republic characterized the government as persecuting the refugee. The Nation also criticized—the publication The Nation also criticized our government’s posture. But as Gross wrote, and I quote, these voices—“these voices were drowned out in the name of national security.”

And now, some 75 years—end quote—some 75 years after that terrible inaction, we have to ensure that voices in support of protecting the vulnerable are not drowned out. And we have to recognize that our refugee admissions program, including resettlement of Syrians, meets both our national security interests and our values as a people. And I think the religious community has a critical role to play in this effort.

Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Eric, thank you very much for that overview. Let’s open it up to questions, and comments too.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, we will open the floor for questions or comments.

(Gives queueing instructions.)

Our first question will come from Thomas Butler with United Methodist Church.

Q: Hello. I was the deputy director of the Church World Service field office at Camp Pendleton, California during the four-month period following the U.S. evacuation from South Vietnam in 1975. One of the things I learned about as soon as I began doing work of arranging sponsorships by churches all across the country in the United States was that each of these refugees had been vetted, first of all, in out-of-country camps. Then they were shipped to four different camps in-country and vetted again before the church people had a chance to even talk to them about where they might like to be sponsored.

I’m wondering if the State Department has the mechanism set up as of now to begin the process of setting up a similar type of situation with Syrian refugees. I believe there are a lot of United Methodists and persons from other Protestant denominations, as well as Catholic and Jewish organizations, who would be willing to sign on if they just knew the system was set up.

SCHWARTZ: I’m not certain that I completely understand the question. Are you asking whether the department and the government—the U.S. government—would be interested in the assistance of church organizations in the process of vetting that’s going on?

Q: I’m assuming that the churches will be wanting to do that. But the system, as I was aware of it in 1975, required active involvement by the State Department prior to the involvement of persons hired by Church World Service and other NGOs at those—(off mic).


Q: So we’re waiting—at least I find myself waiting to hear that a system like that has been set up and the vetting is already underway, talking to potential refugees from Syria. Is that happening, or is that still being delayed because the of the political debate?

SCHWARTZ: No, I think the vetting process—and this is now—especially in the post-9/11 period, this is a process—this preliminary process is one in which—in which nongovernmental organizations, including church-affiliated organizations, are involved in terms of case preparation. But also the offices of a number of U.S. government agencies are also deeply involved in the vetting process following initial case preparation. So that process is very much underway, and there is a large backlog of applicants. And ironically, you know, what was—(laughs)—I say ironically what was once a source of criticism of the program, that actually the process takes so long—between 18 and 24 months—has now become a talking point in support of the rigorous nature of the screening. And, you know, U.S. officials and others who have defended the process have argued that it is quite a(n) arduous and intensive process, and it does take, you know, around 18 to 24 months. And as I said, that has—that had been a source of concern among a number of the nongovernmental organizations. But given the politics of this issue, is it now ironically being articulated as one of—one of the factors that demonstrate just how rigorous the program is.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queueing instructions.)

Thank you. Our next question will come from Egon Cholakian with Harvard University.

Q: Hi there. This is—(correcting pronunciation)—Egon Cholakian. (Chuckles.)

Eric, enjoyed your introduction. I’m going to—apologize up front—I’m going to step a little earlier on in your—in your delivery. You discussed the contributions that the neighboring countries in the Mideast were contributing, Turkey and Jordan and so forth. You left out the Saudis. Saudi Arabia as a critical—on one hand, they’re an ally—potential ally nowadays, you might classify them as. Also, their name and their fingerprints are very often attached to al-Qaida early on, even to the San Bernardino situation most recently. Yet, when it comes to the refugees, what role are they playing either regionally, locally, or even helping the U.S. or Europe? They are the key player in all this, and why is their name being excluded from dialogue? Do you have any insights that you might just throw in there for my own edification?

SCHWARTZ: Well, I think their name isn’t being excluded from the discussion. You know, and I think—I think there’s a lot of—you know, I think that there is much, much more the Gulf countries can do by way—including Saudi Arabia—by way of providing safe haven for Syrians, making that an attractive option for Syrians, and also by providing significant and substantial financial assistance to the countries in the region that are bearing the greatest burdens.

And you know, I think the United States government has an obligation to press officials in Saudi Arabia to be doing much more on this issue. The government of Saudi Arabia, I believe, has provided some assistance to international humanitarian efforts. But there is far more that government can and should be doing, both by way of assistance to neighboring countries, but also expressing a much greater willingness to also serve as a—as a safe haven for Syrians.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

Our next question will come from Elise Alexander with Harvard Divinity School.


Ms. Alexander, please make sure your phone’s not on mute.

Q: OK. Can you hear me?

OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am.

Q: OK. Hi. Thank you for that interesting introduction. I was wondering if you could speak to what seems the most productive strategy for discussing these issues of refugee resettlement on a wider scale, since people have been presenting many clear and unbiased testimony about the systems that refugees face for entering the country, but the discussions often develop into shouting matches, more or less. And I was wondering if you had any suggestions for how best to present the ideas behind what you’ve been saying in a way that can lend themselves to calm conversation across the board.

SCHWARTZ: That’s a great question. That’s a great question. You know, I thought at the outset that you were going to ask me another great question, which we can also talk about, which is, you know, what needs to be done internationally on third-country resettlement. And there’s a lot I’d love to talk about in that regard, and if somebody wants to ask that question I’ll answer it.

But your question really goes to how to change the content of the dialogue. Well, here I think—first, before talking about the nature of the conversation, I really think that this is a moment in history where political courage and leadership is essential. And courage is many things, but in large measure it’s a willingness to—you know, to take a position, take a—take a stand, with the full knowledge that in doing so you’re going to incur either political or personal risk and damage.

And I think the best manifestation or the best reflection of political courage that I’ve seen in recent times has been the expressions of support for refugees by Angela Merkel of Germany. And that is a country that is going to be absorbing upwards of, if not more than, a million asylum-seekers this year. And her leadership on this issue, I think, is significant, substantial, and in some respects remarkable. And I think that kind of—that kind of statement by people who are in positions of influence, whose views are taken very seriously, is absolutely critical, which is why I think we need to be hearing more from religious leaders.

Now—so I think this is a moment for political leadership. But your question really goes to what should leaders be saying and what—and what is the narrative.

And I think—I think in large measure the personal experiences of refugees throughout the United States, there are communities—there are refugees in almost all of our major communities in the United States and in many of our small—in many if not most of our smaller communities. And I think, you know, being able to articulate the stories of hard work, progress, and success in tangible ways can be very, very effective. I think the work of the nongovernmental community is extremely important.

I think, you know, at the outset I’ve been—I was—at the outset of this—you know, this political controversy, I understand that on Capitol Hill calls were overwhelmingly against the refugee resettlement program. But in recent weeks, those calls—that ratio has changed significantly. And I think that’s changed in large measure as a result of the work of the nongovernmental community in getting people who really care about these issues to articulate their views to their representatives.

You know, and this is a—this is a—the last thing I’ll say is, you know, this is an effort in which we’ve got a lot of foot soldiers. We’ve got a lot of people, a lot of agencies, religiously affiliated agencies, and others who are on the ground in communities throughout the country who are actually in the business of helping to resettle refugees. So I think there’s real possibilities here.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Eric, do you think that the pope’s comments about refugees have had an effect on their being more—taking more into countries and whatnot?

SCHWARTZ: Well, I think—the short answer is I don’t know. But I expect that they have, especially insofar as, you know, what the—what the pope says has significant influence within the Catholic hierarchy and within the Catholic Church. And I just—and I would just hope that his words are being repeated, you know, in—you know, throughout this country and in other parts of the world.

FASKIANOS: And just to circle back, the question that you didn’t answer because it wasn’t asked, I’ll ask it. Can you talk about international efforts to tackle resettlement?


FASKIANOS: Let’s go there.

SCHWARTZ: Yeah. Yeah, I think it’s important, especially for leaders who may be not completely familiar with issues—you know, refugee issues generally, to understand the role that third-country resettlement plays. So let me take a—let me take a couple or a few minutes to talk a little bit about that.

You know, the definition of a—of a refugee, the international definition of a refugee, is anyone who’s outside their country of origin and has a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group. But of course, today we think of refugees much more broadly, as people who are not only in that category, but people who are fleeing political conflict of any kind, even in circumstances where they might not be able to make a—would have a hard time making an individual claim of persecution.

And as—and I think as most of you probably know, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees recently said that as of the end of 2014, I believe, the numbers of displaced people around the world was upwards of 60 million—I think the number was 59 ½ million—the majority of whom, actually, are not refugees, but people who are displaced within their countries, within the—within their countries of nationality, and are on the move but haven’t cross the borders. The number of internally displaced persons and refugees together are about 60 million.

So, for most of the world’s refugees, you know, there are kind of three solutions or durable solutions for refugees who are outside their country of origin in circumstances that are—that are, at least in theory, temporary, although what we’ve seen in recent decades is that if you’re a refugee you can be a refugee for a very, very long time. But the three durable solutions are return to your country of origin when the circumstances that precipitated or that caused your flight have abated—and that has happened. In Africa there’s been significant repatriation in recent decades, or if not significant at least not insignificant repatriation. So repatriation can happen.

The second—the second durable solution for refugees is local integration. What that means is, when a refugee flees, he or she flees to a particular safe area, a safe—a country where he or she gets safe haven. Countries in that situation—if the refugee is not returning to their country of origin, countries in that situation occasionally permit refugees to integrate and to establish essentially permanent residence in the place that they fled, although most countries are very reluctant to do that.

So the third durable solution is what we call third country resettlement. And that is the person, the refugee, goes from the country where he or she has safe haven, the country to which they initially fled, and then they’re resettled in a third country. Now, the truth of the matter is the third country resettlement is not an option for the overwhelming majority of the world’s refugees. It’s just not. And my guess is—and this is a guess—but my guess is the total annual amount of—annual number for third country resettlement is probably on the order of 100(,000) to 200,000. That would be my guess. The United States, last year we accepted 70,000 through this third country resettlement system. And this year, the administration has committed to 85,000, 10,000 of which—of whom would be Syrians.

So the question is, what’s the value of third country resettlement? The value of third country resettlement is that it—you know, for a small number of refugees whose situation is either particularly vulnerable or, because they’ve been in protracted situations for many decades, this is the best durable solution. And it will never be the solution for the majority of refugees, but it will be the solution for some number of refugees. And I believe—I think the U.N. would—I think this is the U.N.’s position as well—while third country resettlement is a limited option, it’s too limiting. In other words, the amount of spaces that governments have made available is less than what we ought to be making available.

And the United States and other government should be thinking about increasing their capacity to do third country resettlement. And I think that’s an important agenda item for the international community. I also think we need to be thinking more carefully about ways to expedite resettlement, make it happen more quickly, while sustaining all of the—while sustaining some necessary security safeguards. I think that’s a significant challenge for the international community. And let me just say one thing. I realize I’ve droned on for quite a while, but let me say one more thing.

This third country resettlement program that I’m talking—programs, these programs that I’m talking about are basically programs in which a government makes a particular decision to identify refugees in an area of safe haven and says, in coordination with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, we’re going to resettle those people. That is distinct from—that is distinct from what the government of Europe are now confronting, because they’re basically seeking asylum seekers. And asylum seekers are people who come over your borders in a much less-planned manner—the equivalent in our country of people who are in our country, who have crossed the border, and who show up and make requests for political asylum. And that’s yet another category of people who are—who are—you know, who are fleeing persecution.

That was more of an answer than you asked for, Irina, but I hope it was helpful.

FASKIANOS: It was helpful. And we have more questions in queue, or comments. So let’s go to the next person. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Azeem Farooki with the Islamic Center of Rockland, New York.

Q: Thank you very much.

Professor Schwartz, I am a—(chuckles)—as I like to say, a foot soldier of the Islamic Center of Rockland. I am just a trustee of this, and the board of directors, of Islamic Center of Rockland, New York. And Rockland County is one of the counties of New York state, OK? And—

SCHWARTZ: I grew up on Long Island.

Q: And this center has a, I would say, congregation of approximately 3,000, 4,000 people. Now, I heard you suggest earlier that religious leaders should take a position, speak on welcoming the refugees to the United States. Now, I’m wondering, with the latest environment created by some of the political leaders, how a Muslim representative from an Islamic Center can do this, can express and welcome this—the refugees? Do you have any advice for us?

SCHWARTZ: You ask a—you ask a really important and challenging question. Let me—let me just first say that I think—I think that it is critically important that, you know, the Islamic community and Islamic religious leaders in the United States have strong and unequivocal allies in other religious denominations. I think in the current political environment I think that it is even more critical than ever that Jews, that Christians, that faith leaders beyond the Islamic community speak out strongly and unequivocally in favor of resettlement of all populations. And so for me, as a board member of HIAS, it was an enormous source of pride to see that—the letter from well-over a thousand rabbis in strong support of refugee resettlement.

This is the time. This is the time for the religious community—for religious communities to be standing together and for—and for—this is the time for allies. There’s no question about that in my mind. I realize I haven’t answered your question. And I think that, you know, I’m not sure I have a great answer to your question except to say that I think it is a time for leaders of all faiths, whether Muslim, Jew, Christian, or anyone else, to be articulating the values publicly that—you know, that—to which we, as a people, want to be aspiring. And I think that Muslim-Americans should be part of that conversation. I don’t—you know, I don’t think this is a time for anyone to be shutting up, if you know what I mean.

But in terms of the particular strategies of a cleric from a group that has been subjected to such, you know, kind of inflammatory nonsense, you know, I would be more interested in your perspectives on that, because I think, you know, you’re—you have undoubtedly done more thinking about that than me, and probably many other people.

Q: Yes, sir. Actually, you are right, you know, on the burden of saying this, because on Monday—this coming Monday, the several rabbis and several pastors from the churches—nearby churches are coming to Islamic Center of Rockland Monday afternoon to hold a news conference. And we have had excellent reports among the three Abrahamic religions here I this country. And at this center that I talk to you about, Islamic Center of Rockland, located in Valley Cottage, New York, we had an extremely popular symposium about the three Abrahamic faiths. So, yes, I do have superb support from my rabbi friends and my—you know, from all the churches. And we frequently visit and invite each other. So, you know, this is a—it’s just very opportune that on Monday we will have a press conference at our center. And thank you so much for your—for your kind and endearing words.

SCHWARTZ: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next—our next question—our next question will come from Michelle Bentsman with Harvard Divinity School.

Q: Hello. Hi. Thank you so much for your much-needed words on this subject. I’d like to piggyback a little bit on the question of narratives. There seems like there is still a real danger that the perspective your proposing might be drowned out by a sense of fear. And in this climate in which less-dangerous attacks by the self-radicalized are in danger of becoming more organized, the so-called wrong people get too close, as you said, there’s no way of really creating a program that can completely protect against that. So I’m wondering, what do you believe is the most effective strategy for responding to sort of this fear-bound rhetoric? And in particular, could you speak of it to the possibility of resettlement actually decreasing violent radicalization?

SCHWARTZ: Well, yeah. I mean, I think—there’s no easy answer to your question. I think there’s emotion and there’s logic. And I think in terms of the first part of your question—you asked two—you asked two questions, or two parts—your first question was, you know, the nature of this narrative and your second was, you know, a cut off of resettlement actually having a counterproductive impact. So let me address your first question first—the first part of your question.

I think there’s emotion and there’s logic. And I think proponents of an elevated approach, if I may use that term, towards U.S. refugee resettlement, you know, because we have logic on our side, I think—you know, I think there’s also the value of appealing to emotion, especially when emotion is supported by logic. And so you’re not—you’re not misleading people.

So the emotional dimension, it seems to me, is that you communicate—you seek programs and efforts and engagements like this engagement in Rockland where you can demonstrate, you know, the contributions that refugees have made to American society. You can—you can remind people that refugees are—that not only were they refugees, but refugees are their neighbors, are their friends. And I think the more we articulate those perspectives, you know, the more powerful will be the pro-resettlement narrative.

Now, the logic piece, for those of you who haven’t seen—it’s a bit bawdy—but for those of you who have not seen the John Oliver piece on refugee resettlement, I would recommend it to you very highly. It was actually shown to me for the first time—or, not the first time—it was shown to me at the recent HIAS board meeting, I’m a member of the board of HIAS. And it was shown at our last board meeting. (Laughs.)

And in it, he sort of in a very humorous way, but also in a very effective way, describes the ways in which, you know, the security procedures are implemented in this refugee screening process, and also demonstrates that of all the ways that somebody who has ill intent would want to come into the United States, the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program is about the last way to do it. And I think we just have to continue to make these kinds of arguments and, you know, based on the belief and the faith that logic can prevail.

Now, to the second part of your question, you know, I think—you know, what I said to the Homeland Security Committee on November 19th, I believe, and what President Obama said a couple of nights ago, I think is absolutely true, which is when we, you know, put up walls and when we, you know, articulate perspectives of—you know, of a separation between discrimination against Muslims and those who are different, we play into the ISIS narrative, this apocalyptic narrative of incompatibility of Islam with other traditions.

And so I am deeply concerned that if we—if Congress enacted legislation or if we imposed policy measures that restricted our refugee resettlement program, it would be a boon to our adversaries. And so I think it would be a terrible mistake, and something that would be quite counterproductive in terms of our overall objectives.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Ved Nanda with University of Denver Law School.

Q: Well, thank you very much for your comments. And refugee resettlement in the U.S. being a part of the bigger crisis, the refugee crisis, and, as you rightly said, the definitely of the refugee being so restrictive. There are plenty of countries in Europe that are simply closing their doors, and closing their doors especially to those people who are not from Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan. And I think that this critical situation today has really become intolerable. What can be done about it? And how can, for example, the universities here and people who are in the intellectual realm, can do something about this in writing or in talking about it or in conferences?

SCHWARTZ: Well, you know, that’s a great question. You know, I think that—I think that the academic community has an important role to play, and I’m going to talk about that in a second. Now, obviously, you know, the way to address humanitarian crises of extraordinary dimensions is to address the political, and security, and diplomatic issues that give rise to these crises. But I take it that’s not really the answer you’re looking for, because I think—I take it that your question assumes that no matter what efforts we make to address the political, and security, and diplomatic dimensions of these crises, we’re going to continue to have humanitarian suffering. And I think that’s probably a pretty fair assumption. And so while we can stipulate that humanitarian problems don’t have humanitarian solution, and while we can stipulate that more effort has to be made to reach a political settlement in a place like Syria, we can all agree on that.

But at the same time, that doesn’t free us from the obligation to consider whether the international humanitarian architecture, legal and operational, is adequate to the task. And the issue—the specific issue, I think, that you’ve identified is while I have said that as a practical matter people who are fleeing conflict right now are kind of termed refugees, and as a practical matter many countries of safe haven—countries like Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon—really aren’t making distinctions between people who are fleeing a conflict and people who are fleeing, you know, persecution traditionally defined, I mean, all of those people—or, generally speaking, there have—generally speaking, you know, huge numbers are being granted safe haven without those kinds of fine distinctions, the fact is that resettlement countries, that have agreed to consider asylum and refugee applications for permanent residents in Europe, the United States—those countries have not abandoned the distinction.

Those countries still make determinations about your ability to stay permanent in their country based on the five characteristics that I’ve described. And that does mean that people who—you know, who are fleeing conflict but do not have individualized persecution claims, or people who are fleeing, you know, economic distress or climate-induced migration, they don’t have opportunities for a third country—those kinds of—those people don’t have those kinds of opportunities for third country resettlement. And I think that’s a significant and substantial challenge. I think the more, you know, of the academic community is looking at that in terms of the connection between international refugee law and international humanitarian law, which are two distinct bodies of law but really should be much more closely integrated and interrelated, I think the academic community can make valuable contributions in terms of identifying durable solutions to all victims. And so—you know, and I would certainly encourage those efforts.

Q: Well, you’re right. You know, we keep seeing all that. Excuse me.

FASKIANOS: No, go ahead.

Q: Go ahead? Yeah, I was thinking, may I just simply add that I teach refugee law, teach international law, and find that no matter what we say and how much we plead and advocate for having broader kind of humanitarian assistance given those people who are fleeing from climate-induced, or economic, or other kind of considerations and conflicts, at the present time there seems to be no way that we succeed. And the challenge seems enormous at the present time.

SCHWARTZ: Well, let me—let me comment on that, because, you know, as a policy—you know, when I was in a policymaking role, you know, that issue raises a very important question, which is, you know, do you go into international fora as a policymaker and suggest, you know, expanded forms of protection, right? And that would seem to make sense. The problem with doing that, honestly—the problem with doing that, or the challenge with doing that, honestly, is if you go in and suggest a renegotiation of some of these instruments, you may end up with more restrictive international instruments than you began with.

And so in some respects, you know, I think—but I still think it’s valuable. You know, the writings in this area, the advocacy in this area, I think they’re valuable because they create effective norms. And what I mean by that is, the government of—you know, the government of Turkey has 2 million Syrians. And you can—you can—we know that they haven’t done individualized refugee determines with respect to those 2 million Syrians. And we also know that if they tried to expel those 2 million Syrians there’d be an international uproar. And I would say in some measures that’s a reflection of evolving norms that aren’t necessarily black-letter law, but really do make a difference.

Q: Thank you. Thank you very much.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Tomas Uthup with Friends of the United Nations.

Q: Hi, Dean Schwartz. It’s a pleasure to speak to a fellow Binghamtonian. I know Binghamton University is very proud of you.

My question actually touches on a couple of your answers. You were talking about the distinction between logic and emotion, and the importance of stories. What it reminds me is the minaret ban referendum in Switzerland. And at that time, the ad agency that carried out the advertising campaign for the party that—the group that, you know, was advocating for the ban of minarets, they said they knew that they had to appeal not to the brain but really to the gut—so the brain and the gut, in other words to appeal to emotions. And that’s how they succeeded.

And so in terms of building a counter-narrative, would religious organizations be able to come up with a national platform where these stories of refugees who are contributing to their communities at the very local, grassroots level, including, you know, Syrian refugees or Lebanese refugees from 20, 30 years ago when the war was going on. Would that would be effective? And one of the things I’ve noticed is the absence of African-American imams, because you know a substantial portion of Muslims, between 28 and 33 percent in the U.S., are of African-American ethnicity. But they have largely been absent from this conversation. How can one include them in this conversation?

SCHWARTZ: Your last question, I don’t—I’m afraid I don’t have a great answer for it, other than to say that, you know, I think—you know, I think religious leaders generally in our country are largely united in terms of the principles of humanitarianism, principles of benevolence. And I think that the way you bring people into a conversation if they haven’t been part of the conversation is you engage them. And I think—you know, and I think that’s a challenge for the religious community generally.

In terms of your first question, I think the answer is yes. I mean, I think that religious leaders, you know, should be working together in developing the kinds of narratives that I have been alluding to on this phone call. I also think that, you know, my comfort level about appealing to emotion in this particular case is that, you know, I think it’s emotion that is—that is informed by logic. You are not engaged in a propaganda effort to convince people, you know, based on faulty information or based on information of, you know, dubious validity. Here, I think the facts very much support the case for inclusion. And when that’s—when that is the case, I think it make the effort to build a narrative that is—that is cognizant of the importance of emotional connections, I think that exercise is a—is a very noble one. And I would encourage religious leaders to be deeply engaged in it.

Let me make one other point, which is completely off-topic, but I don’t want to leave the without having made it. I mentioned there are about 60 million displaced persons in the world, more or less. But I didn’t say that about—and that they are internally displaced within their countries and refugees. I didn’t give you a breakdown. About a third of that number would be refugees and about two-thirds would be internally displaced persons. I didn’t want to lose that little statistical point, so.

FASKIANOS: Well, thank you, Eric. I think we are at the end of the time. I’m sorry to those of you, we couldn’t get to all the questions. But we appreciate those comments that were made here today, your valuable insights, Eric, and obviously your public service in government, and vice chair you serve in now the Humphrey School—and formerly a Council fellow, so we miss you.

SCHWARTZ: Of course.

FASKIANOS: I hope that you will all follow Eric Schwartz on Twitter at @Eric_P_Schwartz, and also at the Humphrey School for Public Affairs at @HHHSchool. So we all hope that you will do that, encourage you also to follow us here at our Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcement about upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources. So thank you all again.

SCHWARTZ: Thank you.


This is an uncorrected transcript.

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