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News Flash: Owning a Smartphone Does Not Make You Immune to Sarin Gas

by Trevor Hayes, published

Perhaps one of the least thought out and most tired observations made with respect to the Syrian refugees arriving in Europe is that they have smartphones and tablets. The implication being that if these people can afford to buy smartphones and tablets, they do not need the help of western nations to survive.

Unfortunately, this sentiment misunderstands the Syrian refugee crisis, and indeed all refugee crises, to an alarming degree.

Imagine for a moment that you are an average Syrian. Imagine that you own a home, have a family, and live in a major city. Now imagine that your country is torn apart by a civil war. Remember that the Assad regime used barrel bombs and sarin gas on neighborhoods that he suspected were assisting the rebels. Consider the fact that ISIS has migrated into Syria and is now clashing with other rebel groups like al-Nusra to control regional power centers.

And now consider the most important question: what on Earth does owning a smartphone do to ameliorate the absolute inhumanity of this situation? In which way does being a person of means make someone immune to the ravages of war? If a person is wealthy, are they immune to sarin gas?

Sadly, this is a narrative that follows refugees all too often. If they have smartphones and technology, the narrative imagines that they are people of wealth who are simply here relocating for better economic prosperity, who have abandoned their home country and are not worthy of our protection -- essentially the same argument used against Mexican immigrants (the infamous "they took our jobs" argument).

However, if the Syrians showing up in Europe were destitute, the argument would be that these people are too much of a burden, could not possibly integrate into western society, and simply must turn somewhere else.

In short, xenophobia at its most transparent.

Make no mistake, there are arguments to be made about how to handle the refugee crisis, and which nation should take how many refugees, but none of these arguments begin by saying, "Well... they have smartphones..."

To be clear, smartphones are not expensive in the slightest. The rate at which mobile technology has advanced in recent years has resulted in a level of accessibility that means the average Syrian can afford an older model iPhone for a reasonable price.

Even if we consider the case of a Syrian refugee arriving in Europe in possession of the newest and most expensive model of smartphone, the argument has yet to be made for how that smartphone would ensure their safety if they stayed in their home country.

Once again, place yourself in the shoes of a Syrian refugee who is fleeing civil war, and answer the question: what would you pack if you were fleeing your home for an unknown amount of time? Your cell phone and charger would most certainly make that list.

Amid criticism, on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States would increase the cap on the total number of refugees it would accept, raising it from 70,000 to 100,000 by 2017. This revelation was met by concerns -- primarily from Republican lawmakers -- that the Syrian refugees would create security risks and could possibly be Islamic terrorists.

What remains unclear is why Syria is being treated as such a unique case, given that the United States took in close to 70,000 refugees and asylum seekers in 2013, primarily from Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact of the matter is that the screening criteria used for Syrian refugees are incredibly stringent, with many human rights organizations claiming they may be too strict.

Human Rights First expressed concerns that the guidelines may paint with too broad a brush, condemning average Syrians as a security risk for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • Fighting with any armed opposition group;
  • Providing "material support" to any opposition group or anyone associated with an opposition group; and
  • Having a parent or a spouse associated with an opposition group.

Given the context of U.S. actions in Syria, in supporting, training, and arming opposition groups, these rules for refugees threaten to border on oblivious. When taking in the full spectrum of the role that the United States played in fueling this refugee crisis, how anyone could argue that assistance should not be rendered is beyond reason.

There are nearly 4 million total displaced Syrians. Yes, there are security concerns. Yes, assimilation will be difficult. Yes, there will be a cost associated, and yes, the United States absolutely needs to play its part.

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