Obama puts hu­man face on Syria refugee de­bate

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE - AP

Brush­ing off refugee wor­ries at home, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama crouched along­side mi­grant chil­dren yes­ter­day and de­clared they are the op­po­site of ter­ror­ists wreak­ing havoc from Paris to Mali. Work­ing to put a hu­man face on the refugee cri­sis, he said, “They’re just like our kids.”The refugees Obama en­coun­tered at a school for poor chil­dren in Malaysia were not from Syria, and un­like the flood of Syr­i­ans meet­ing steep re­sis­tance in the US, th­ese mi­grants had al­ready been cleared to re­set­tle in Amer­ica. Still, Obama said their faces could have been those of kids from Syria, Iraq and other wartorn re­gions whose pur­suit of a life free from violence led them far from their na­tive homes.

“They were in­dis­tin­guish­able from any child in Amer­ica,” Obama said. “The no­tion that some­how we would be fear­ful of them - that our pol­i­tics would some­how lead us to turn our sights away from their plight - is not rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the best of who we are.” More than mere mus­ings, Obama’s com­ments were in­tended as a direct re­buke to those de­mand­ing a halt to Syr­ian and Iraqi refugees en­ter­ing the US in the light of the Is­lamic State’s at­tacks in Paris.

Obama said the US had shown it can wel­come refugees while en­sur­ing se­cu­rity. “There’s no con­tra­dic­tion,” he said.

Many Amer­i­cans seem to dis­agree. Democrats in large num­bers have aban­doned their pres­i­dent and his op­po­si­tion to stiffer screen­ing mea­sures; forty-seven of them voted against Obama on Thurs­day. Hav­ing se­cured a veto-proof ma­jor­ity in the House, supporters are now hop­ing for a re­peat in the Se­nate, while Obama works to shift the con­ver­sa­tion to milder visa waiver changes that wouldn’t af­fect Syr­ian refugees.

In a mod­est class­room where refugee chil­dren were learn­ing English, Obama zigzagged among art projects, puzzles and a caged class rab­bit as he asked chil­dren in crisp white uni­forms and neck­ties about their as­pi­ra­tions for the fu­ture. Later, as he met with older refugees who will soon re­lo­cate to the US, he said th­ese chil­dren “de­serve love and pro­tec­tion and sta­bil­ity and an ed­u­ca­tion”. “You will see the de­gree to which they rep­re­sent the op­po­site of terror, the op­po­site of the type of de­spi­ca­ble violence we saw in Mali and Paris,” the pres­i­dent said.

Vic­tim

He sin­gled out one refugee from Myan­mar - a petite 16year-old in a bright yel­low dress - and said she had been a vic­tim of hu­man traf­fick­ing un­til the UN in­ter­vened. Obama said the girl now hopes to ad­vo­cate for those who have suf­fered a sim­i­lar plight. The White House de­clined to name the girl out of con­cern for the safety of her par­ents still in Myan­mar. “This is who we want to help,” Obama said. “This is the face of peo­ple around the world who still look to the United States as a bea­con of hope.”

Of the some 150,000 refugees in Malaysia, many if not most are Ro­hingya, a Mus­lim eth­nic group. Tens of thou­sands of Ro­hingya have fled per­se­cu­tion by Myan­mar’s Bud­dhist ma­jor­ity and landed in Malaysia, where Obama was at­tend­ing a re­gional eco­nomic sum­mit. Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has played a cen­tral role in Myan­mar’s emer­gence from bru­tal mil­i­tary rule, a trans­for­ma­tion Obama con­sid­ers a key for­eign pol­icy suc­cess. Yet the con­tin­ued per­se­cu­tion of Ro­hingya re­mains a stain on the coun­try’s record, and even op­po­si­tion leader Aung San Suu Kyi, an Obama ally whose party tri­umphed in re­cent elec­tions, has been sharply crit­i­cized for look­ing the other way.

Driv­ing the de­bate about ac­cept­ing Syr­ian refugees in the US, as in Europe, are con­cerns that ter­ror­ists could ex­ploit the sys­tem to en­ter the coun­try and carry out more at­tacks. It’s un­clear whether that was a fac­tor in the Paris at­tacks that killed 130, al­though Obama has in­sisted that’s not a le­git­i­mate se­cu­rity threat. Un­like in Europe, refugees don’t set foot in the US un­til they un­dergo a vet­ting process that typ­i­cally takes 18 to 24 months.

Since Paris, the refugee is­sue has re­ver­ber­ated on the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign trail, where fears about Mus­lims in the US have been voiced with a level of open­ness not seen since 9/11. Obama has ac­cused Repub­li­cans of po­lit­i­cally driven fear-mon­ger­ing, but strong sup­port in Congress for tighter vet­ting mea­sures has un­der­scored how per­va­sive some of those con­cerns have be­come. “It is wrong to con­demn a strong screen­ing process us­ing the lan­guage of char­ity and moral­ity,” said House Ma­jor­ity Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Obama also met in Kuala Lumpur with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of civil so­ci­ety groups, where he called for tol­er­ance and univer­sal free­doms while avoid­ing direct crit­i­cism of Malaysia’s gov­ern­ment. He also at­tended a sum­mit with South­east Asian lead­ers, where he called for reach­ing an “am­bi­tious and durable” cli­mate agree­ment in Paris in the com­ing weeks and praised ef­forts to cre­ate a “code of con­duct” to ad­dress mar­itime dis­putes in the South China Sea. Be­fore de­part­ing for Wash­ing­ton to­day, Obama planned to meet separately with the lead­ers of Laos and Sin­ga­pore. —

KUALA LUMPUR: US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama gets a hug from a 16-year-old refugee from Myan­mar af­ter speak­ing about the refugee sit­u­a­tion dur­ing a visit to the Dig­nity for Chil­dren Foun­da­tion yes­ter­day. — AP

French sol­diers pa­trol the Tro­cadero place near the Eif­fel Tower in Paris yes­ter­day. — AP

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