Whatever Abdul Razak Ali Artan’s motivations and intentions were when he deliberately ploughed his car into a crowd on Ohio State University’s campus, injuring 11, the young Somali man brought unwanted attention to that most vulnerable of vulnerable communities — refugees. The renewed focus comes at a particularly sensitive time, with US President-elect Donald Trump preparing to take office.
Artan was a refugee, having arrived in the United States with his family from their interim home, Pakistan, in 2014. He was relatively young (either 18 or 20), liked lamb doner and admitted to the Ohio State student newspaper that he was “kind of scared” as a Muslim to pray in public.
When Artan embarked on the mad, bad and dangerous attack that ended with his being shot dead, he was a legally permanent resident in the United States. To all intents and purposes, Artan was one of the lucky ones, a refugee who had secured the right, en famille, to live, study and work in the richest country in the world.
However, the fact that he turned violent and was a refugee and a Muslim is sure to feed into the ugly debate whipped up by Trump on the campaign trail. The unverifiable claim by the Islamic State (ISIS) that Artan was a “soldier” will add to the ferment.
Trump has consistently been callous, if colourful, about refugees, especially those from Muslim-majority countries.
Refugees from Syria, Trump recently said, were a “Trojan horse”, implying they were infiltrators who pretended to be victims while plotting to undermine or destroy the United States. He called the presence of Somali refugees in Minneapolis, the biggest city in the midwestern state of Minnesota, “a disaster”.
He inaccurately portrayed the United States’ existing two- or even three-year intensive refugee-vetting process as “faulty”, claiming — without proof — that it is dangerously enabling “very large numbers of Somali refugees” to enter the country. “Some of them [are] joining ISIS and spreading their extremist views all over our country and all over the world,” said the man who will become the 45th US president on January 20th.
This, despite a report by the Migration Policy Institute, an independent Washington think-tank, on the folly of linking refugees to terrorism. Its October 2015 study said that of the 784,000 refugees resettled in the United States since September 11th, 2001, just three have been arrested for planning terrorist activities. Of those three, it added, “two were not planning an attack in the United States and the plans of the third were barely credible”.
As for Muslims — or, in the new euphemism, people from “terror-prone regions” — Trump has suggested enhanced scrutiny should they attempt to enter the United States and enhanced surveillance should they already be on US territory. He has also indicated that even isolated violent incidents, as appears to be the case with Artan, somehow reflect adversely on American- Muslim residents’ and refugees’ loyalty to the United States.
Given his previous views on the dangers posed by refugees as a group, it may be reasonable to assume that Trump will see the violent actions of one individual — Artan — as representative of the whole community.
So, what could Trump actually do about refugees once he becomes president?
His instinct would be to close the United States off, a “total and complete shutdown”, as he had proposed for Muslims last December. That is obviously wholly impractical. He could, however, as indicated during the presidential campaign, intensify the refugee-vetting process. This would probably slow their acceptance and entry into the United States still further, eventually forcing the number of arrivals down.
Here is another possibility. It would be totally unlikely had Trump not already said he prized unpredictability in a country and its leader. So President Trump’s America could simply denounce the 1967 protocol, adopted by the United Nations to broaden the landmark 1951 Refugee Convention. The United States signed the protocol (but not the 1951 convention) in 1968. It requires signatory countries to take in refugees from all over the world and, in the late 1960s, the US government and those it governed seemed comfortable to be a safe haven for the persecuted.
But by the simple means of a notification addressed to the UN secretary-general, a President Trump could relieve the United States of its obligations under the 1967 protocol. As Article IX of the protocol states: “Such denunciation shall take effect for the State Party concerned one year from the date on which it is received by the Secretary-General of the United Nations.”
Would Trump actually do it? A denunciation would be a simple — but significant — expedient move to ensure fewer refugees and many countries (not least some of the Gulf states) are not a party to the protocol or the convention. But if the United States turned its back on the world in that way, it would be decidedly diminished.