On Syria, Trump and East Asia have a lot in common
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On Syria, Trump and East Asia have a lot in common

WITHIN the Trump family, there seems to be a raging debate over whether the United States should offer refuge to Syrians fleeing their country’s catastrophic civil war.

Ivanka Trump is now openly contradicting her father, who ordered missile strikes on a Syrian airbase in retaliation for a chemical attack but still refuses to change his hard-line approach to resettling refugees.

Trump’s callous comments on the crisis, including his boasts that he had “absolutely no problem” telling Syrian children in their faces to leave the United States, might seem to bely a great American tradition of admitting those in need. In reality, though, this is hardly the first wave of anti-refugee sentiment in American history.

As recently as the 1970s, the debate against resettlements from Vietnam in the 1970s used many of the same arguments being recycled today.After the fall of Saigon and the unification of the Vietnam under Communist rule, President Gerald Ford signed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Act in 1975. The Act gave Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian refugees special status to enter the US via a resettlement program, and the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Program provided financial help and access to local services.

Unlike Trump, Ford moved ahead in spite of bitter opposition from the public: only 36 percent of Americans favoured admitting refugees, rolling out many of the arguments now being recycled to argue against accepting Syrians.

Despite the fears of the anti-refugee camp, which argued the new arrivals would never be able to assimilate and would take resources away from poor Americans, Ford’s resettlement turned out to be a success.

The Vietnamese immigrant community in the United States now boasts higher household income and a lower poverty rate than both foreign-born and native-born US residents, and Vietnamese immigrants are also far more likely to have obtained citizenship than other immigrant groups.

Unfortunately, this current refugee crisis has produced a very different result. In terms of both resettling refugees and ensuring the United Nations has the funds it needs to handle the Syrian crisis, other countries are putting the United States to shame.

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At the Syria Donor Conference held in Brussels on April 4 to 5, the US pledged US$566 million to the UN’s 2017 Syria crisis response plan. Germany, the European Commission, and the United Kingdom all pledged more, and much smaller states put forward proportionally larger sums. Kuwait, for example, not only served as co-host but also pledged $100 million for 2017 and another $100 million for 2018.

The American donation may seem large in comparison, until you consider that Kuwait’s entire national GDP is equivalent to just 0.63 percent of the American economy. That money is destined for places like the UN-supported refugee camps located in central Iraq, where US$10 million in Kuwaiti donations will be put to use providing water, shelter, and sanitation to 97,000 Syrians.


Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, right, visits Jordan’s Zaatari camp. Pic: AP.

Looking at the list of donors who participated in Brussels, however, one other key factor jumps out. As it turns out, the US is not the only global power that declined to contribute its fair share. While China, Japan, and South Korea all took part in the conference, only Tokyo put forward a pledge (US$260 million) that corresponds to its wealth and affluence.

By comparison, the Chinese and South Korean contributions were paltry: Beijing chipped in just over US$29 million (coming in below Belgium and Finland) while Seoul only put just US$14 million.

Donations are one thing, but in terms of accepting refugees, all three countries are actually more extreme than Donald Trump. Even if Japan contributed US$164.7 million to UN efforts in 2016, it only granted refugee status to 28 individuals out of 10,901 applicants. Tokyo also only grants those refugees student visas, meaning that a large percentage of refugees are not eligible to apply.

South Korea has hardly done better: in fact, Seoul has only ever accepted 600 non-Korean refugees out of 18,800 applicants. China, for its part, has remained on the side lines as well: as of August 2015, there were a grand total of nine Syrian refugees and 26 Syrians seeking asylum in China.

In many ways, anti-refugee sentiment in all three countries follows a similar trajectory to the US. Terrorist attacks in Europe have fostered a distrust of refugees from the Middle East, while slowing economies feed anxieties over jobs.

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Ethnic and cultural differences are an obvious factor: South Korea goes out of its way to accept and integrate defectors from North Korea, but no other outside arrivals enjoy similar treatment. Beijing has been extraordinarily reluctant in getting involved in a conflict it considers to be of the West’s making, and feels no responsibility to help deal with the repercussions. Chinese officials also fear religious tensions in its Xinjiang province could be exacerbated by an influx of Syrian Muslims, emboldening Uighur terrorist groups to carry our more attacks.

While Asia’s biggest economies do little to resettle Syrian and other refugee populations, poorer Muslim-majority states have picked up the slack. Indonesia had taken in 13,679 Syrian refugees and asylum seekers as of early 2016, while Malaysia announced in 2015 it would accept 3,000 refugees and began welcoming them later that year.

Speaking at the UN, Najib Razak offered a rationale that essentially took the anti-refugee stances of Malaysia’s wealthier regional partners and flipped to the other side of the coin. As he put it, Muslim nations were partially responsible for ensuring the safety of Syrian refugees and vowed Malaysia would do its part. Then again, at least one non-Muslim regional leader has struck a similar tone: Rodrigo Duterte, not widely known for humanitarianism, pledged last year to take in as many refugees as possible.

It might not be surprising that Muslim leaders would be more willing to accept primarily Muslim refugees, but that is no excuse for wealthier nations such as China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States to shirk their share of the burden.

The arguments against helping address the crisis are no more rational in Beijing or Tokyo than they are in Washington, and if East Asia’s leading economic centres truly want to be considered the global equals of their North American, European, or even Southeast Asian counterparts, humanitarian obligations are an indispensable part of the package.