top of page

The Security Case for Massive U.S. Intervention in Europe’s Refugee and Migrant Crisis

By Andrew Blinkinsop, Transatlantic Security and Community Analyst


It has been a stressful year for the European Union. The Greek debt crisis laid bare deep divisions between Europe’s north and south, stressing the joints of the monetary union. Now the EU is being dealt another blow in the shape of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers at its doorstep, driven from their homes by violent conflict in Africa and the Middle East. An explosion in the number of refugees and migrants, and a few cases, including the discovery of 71 bodies of asylum seekers in a truck in Austria, have propelled the issue to the fore, from Europe’s periphery to its center. As Europe struggles with finding its own solution to the crisis, attention is turning to whether or not the U.S. should respond and, if so, what its response should be. Refugee advocacy groups and some U.S. politicians want the U.S. to accept more Syrian refugees, calling the 1,500 accepted since the start of the civil war there too low.

Doing what is right or what is safe?

The issue from the U.S. perspective is often viewed as a tradeoff between humanitarian and security concerns. The moral obligation to act is self-evident and speaks to core American values inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, to welcome with open arms the “tempest-tossed.” However, the argument goes, we must balance this noble desire with the hard-nosed reality that among these huddled masses may be radical Islamists who mean us harm. But this neat dichotomy between morality and security is a false one. When we abandon the myopic frame that casts counterterrorism as the be-all-end-all of security and look at U.S. security more broadly, it becomes clear that a policy to admit a very large number of refugees serves both causes.

Islamic terrorism is, without a doubt, a significant threat to U.S. security. However, it is far from the only one, and some in the U.S. national security establishment no longer see it as the primary one. Several prominent U.S. generals give that dubious distinction to Russia and its revisionist aspirations, and others place primacy on cyberattacks orchestrated by hostile governments. Determining a “top threat” is a matter of contention. Whether facing these threats or the myriad others emerging in an increasingly multipolar world, what is clear is that a healthy, unified European Union remains indispensable to U.S. security.

Stresses on the EU’s structure

At the moment, though, the EU is in the midst of a crisis of identity and legitimacy. The pressures of economic recession have propelled euroskeptic parties to political relevance in many EU countries. From the UKIP in Britain to the National Front in France to Jobbik in Hungary, these parties disparage Brussels institutions and seek to unravel many of the ties built between EU nations in the past half-century. These and other right-wing euroskeptic parties across Europe share two additional characteristics of concern: nationalist ideologies hostile to immigrants and foreign policy positions antithetical to U.S. security goals.

Beyond the threat to U.S. security that would result from a weakened and divided EU, euroskeptic parties also often exhibit an anti-U.S. stance and some have concerning ties to Russia. For example, Marie Le Pen of France’s National Front stated that the U.S. is “not an ally or a friend” to France, while her party has substantial ties to Russian banks. Across the continent, Jobbik wants Hungary to join Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union. In general, Russia has made no secret of courting euroskeptic politicians, and the euroskeptic faction ENF in the European Parliament has a voting record closely aligned to Moscow’s interests.

The danger of euroskeptic parties should not be overstated; for now, these parties have fairly limited representation in European capitals and the EU itself. However, these parties do pose a potential threat to European unity and American security goals. A Pew survey conducted in April and May showed that despite the lack of strong electoral success thus far, many viewed the rise of euroskeptic parties as “a good thing” for politics, including a majority of respondents in the UK and Germany. This indicates substantial room for growth for these parties – room that could be filled by nationalist appeals to EU citizens’ worries about immigration, the top issue of concern across the EU according to the May Eurobarometer poll. The euroskeptic right views the refugee and migrant crisis as a path to electoral success, and it could be right.

Lessening the stress

Europe sits on a fulcrum with solidarity, unity and the benefits of open borders on one side, and nationalism, distrust and a lack of confidence in the European project on the other. Each stressor, from the Greek debt negotiations to disagreements over Russian sanctions to refugees and migrants, represents another weight on the latter side of the scale. In the interest of a Europe “whole and free,” and by extension U.S. security, the Obama Administration should work to lessen this stress and tip the scale.

The U.S. can do this by dramatically increasing the number of refugees it accepts from source countries. Explaining the moral and strategic considerations to the American public, the Obama Administration should specifically commit to accepting large numbers of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition to their relevance to U.S. policy, these three countries are the source of a large percentage of refugees and migrants currently moving to and through Europe, accounting for 279,866 or 68% of Mediterranean Sea arrivals so far this year. The acceptance of 10,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S. in 2016, as called for by President Obama on Thursday, is not nearly enough. The 65,000 figure called for by a group of 14 U.S. senators, as well as the International Rescue Committee, would make a more meaningful impact on America’s European allies.

To make this work, according to International Rescue Committee President David Miliband, the U.S. government would need to raise its current annual refugee cap of 70,000. There is also the issue that asylum requests take an especially long time to process due to security concerns. Many refugees are turned away due to trivial connections with armed groups that controlled areas they lived in. The U.S.’s strict definitions of “material support of terror groups” cast too many asylum-seekers out and are ill-suited for dealing with the complexities of a civil war. Thus, the U.S. government must issue needed guidance on material support waivers to expand groups of eligible refugees, and establish a family reunification mechanism to streamline applications.

Political feasibility

If the threat to U.S. security lies essentially in the potential for an anti-immigrant, anti-EU backlash, why would the U.S. be immune from the same effects? Given the anti-immigrant turn of the Republican primaries, how would this proposal play domestically?

This is precisely why a re-framing of the issue is needed. If the “security vs. morality” lens remains our only one, the debate will likely fall along partisan lines, with “bleeding hearts” railing against the supposed inhumanity of one side and the “hard-nosed realists” scoffing at the naïveté of the other. But that is not a foregone conclusion. Some Republican presidential candidates, including Lindsey Graham and Donald Trump, have already expressed their willingness to admit more Syrian refugees. By approaching security concerns more broadly, the debate about Syrian refugees could leap the partisan divide and offer a chance for the U.S. to assert moral and strategic leadership.


bottom of page