Reactions to disastrous events like the Syrian refugee crisis have become increasingly predictable and asinine.
One reaction in the form of meme for this particular crisis is to the effect of “We are aiding Syrian refugees? What about our homeless veterans? We must take care of them first.”
I am sure you or your peers have posted something to this extent online within the past week. The problems with this type of criticism, however, is that it intentionally marginalizes international laws regarding refugees, and it logically collapses upon itself when one considers the many other problems the United States faces internally.
When one issue becomes especially pressing, others arise to compete. Regardless, recent efforts by U.S. governors to reject the settlement of refugees in certain states reflects a broader impulse to neglect international obligations in favor of local interests. What governors do in policy, we do in memes.
Per the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, refugees are “people for whom the denial of asylum has potentially deadly consequences.” Since 1951, refugees have had rights to asylum, personal liberties, and equal treatment almost universally recognized by international law. To betray these rights now would be inconsistent with how we have agreed to treat refugees.
The problem of homeless veterans is a deplorable and ultimately destructive example of how the United States neglects those who have selflessly fought on the front lines of war. What is damning about criticisms like the aforementioned meme, however, is not the important problems they address, but the issues they consciously marginalize. Just because addressing homeless veterans is important does not mean it takes precedence over internationally established law that every United States president has endorsed since 1980 (per the U.S. Department of State).
Furthermore, this same juxtaposition can be applied to any of the United States’ internal problems whether it be maltreatment of prison populations, the poor, etc. “Why do we pay attention to x when we can pay attention to y?”
The attempt to neglect the Syrian refugee crisis, however, does not make its severity any less pressing. Do not conflate plight brought upon by the United States’ unique politics with an entirely separate interpretation of how refugees must be treated. Issues such as homeless veterans and Syrian refugees do not have to be in conflict, but that is what has happened.
Wendy Mitchell of patch.com perfectly captured this tribal mentality with her opinion piece: “Help 50,000 Homeless Veterans Before Helping Syrian Refugees.” Why, however, would we stop helping one to exclusively help the other? You do not like the way your veterans are treated? Me neither. However, do not marginalize those with international right to asylum in an attempt to shift the conversation. Blame the backdrop politics which have allowed such issues to exist originally.