Syrian refugees and Argentina’s foreign policy

Buenos Aires Herald. 16 de julio de 2016.

The challenge is to combine compassion with policy based on national interest
In an ideal world, humanitarian principles and careful long-term considerations would determine refugee policy. In the real world, decisions about refugees are often made based on short-term national and, especially, international political calculations.
Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra’s recent announcement that Argentina will accept 3000 additional Syrian refugees (beyond the several hundred already here) is, happily, a positive step in the humanitarian direction that should also serve Argentine foreign policy very well in both the near and long term.
It is not always easy to combine compassion and policy based on national interest. One reason for this is that the humanitarian option is not always so clear. Helping a few thousand refugees is a mere drop in the bucket when we consider that the civil war in Syria alone has produced hundreds of thousands of victims.
There are other conflictive situations, and refugees from other places who are in need. Another reason is the difficulty of combining politics with rational risk analysis. In part because of real experience with devastating terror attacks, in many countries refugee issues have become part of what international relations scholars call “high politics:” that is, matters involving national security, which therefore are debated not just by immigration officials, but also by heads of state, foreign affairs ministers and ministers of security and defence.
It is the main job of people who hold such offices to look after national security, and to develop strategies to deal with potential security threats, no matter how remote. The security risks of accepting refugees through a screening process carried out in cooperation with international politics, including the United Nations, are very small.
The problem in many countries is that there is the political temptation to exaggerate them for short-term political gain.
We can see this clearly in the ongoing presidential campaign in the United States. Just to cite one example, in April, Donald Trump warned his supporters in Rhode Island to “lock their doors” to keep safe from Syrian refugees The United States is not exactly being flooded with unvetted Syrian refugees. President Obama had announced an initial plan to accept 10,000, and not all of those have arrived yet.
In Argentina, news reports have indicated that officials from the Ministry of Defence and other agencies whose mission is protecting security are concerned about how proper screening can be carried out. A general challenge (relevant to the concerns about refugees) that Argentina faces is how to be vigilant regarding remote but real security concerns in a way that respects individual rights and freedoms and the country’s laws.
Monitoring the country’s borders is another important challenge. Security officials are doing their job. However, they, and even more so, politicians, are to be congratulated for not taking advantage of the decision to admit a few thousand refugees to engage in excessive political rhetoric. Instead, they seem to be getting to work in a pragmatic fashion. The screening process will have to be worked out. There will have to be a plan for helping refugees to settle down in the counThe relevant ministries will surely want to work with local organizations in the communities of Syrian heritage in the country. Getting these details right is crucial. Otherwise there could be a political backlash similar to the one that followed Angela Merkel’s initial generous embrace of refugees fleeing into Germany.
The decision to admit 3000 additional Syrian refugees is a small humanitarian gesture. It is probably best that Argentine officials chose a relatively modest number, one they can effectively commit to.
The government of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil had been in talks with the UN to discuss offering spaces to up to 100,000 Syrian refugees, but the Temer government has abandoned that effort.
The new Syrian refugee policy is an important positive step for Argentine foreign policy. It maintains a strong commitment to international law and solidarity. It will contribute to the positive relations with countries like the United States, Germany, and France, and with the Vatican. Humanitarian voices will remain rightfully indignant that many countries, including Argentina, should do more to help refugees. But from the point of view of foreign policy, if Argentina can make a success out of this small challenge it will help itself and will also set a good example for the rest of the world