The Psychology of Fear: Syrian Refugees in the UK and U.S.


sr 1The thirty-second president of the United States boldly addressed a nation of distressed citizens in his inauguration address in 1933, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat in advance.” Roosevelt’s words could not ring truer now as the UK and the U.S. face the threat of Isis and must welcome global neighbors fleeing war-torn countries. Through discovering what is the psychology of fear, this will explore the screening process for refugees in the U.S. and the UK and seek to understand the reasoning behind Islamophobia, xenophobia, and nativism with solutions to overcome those fears.

It wasn’t a particularly uncommon argument between my friend and me two weeks ago; rather it was quite common that we disagreed on decisions of the U.S. government. Except this fight felt unjustly wrong as my friend tried to defend Texas’ Governor Greg Abbott’s decision to not let Syrian refugees into the Texas under suspicion that “terrorists might use the refugees as cover to sneak across borders” (Gov. Greg Abbott). While this has the potential to be true, the U.S. vetting process is one of the intensive vetting processes in the world, and there are added layers of security when checking Syrians, beginning with referrals from the U.N.’s refugee agency registration, then the U.S. consultation screening assessing economic and social factors of each individual refugee which can take anywhere from twelve to twenty-four months.

In the case for Syrian refugees, the U.S. takes extra precaution by involving the State Department, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, interviewing applicants, using biometric information and checking and rechecking historical information on the applicants. According to Time, just over 50% of applicants pass the screening process and it takes anywhere from eighteen to twenty-four months to be processed and approved and, about half of those accepted are children and 25% are adults over age sixty (Altman). With this security one would believe that the U.S. is prepared to allow 10,000 refugees into the U.S. without severe repercussions.

Compared to U.S., Britain is taking twice as many refugees as the U.S. but, the process takes longer. Prime Minister David Cameron said in his September 7th speech that the UK would take in 20,000 Syrian refugees but that process would be spread out over five years. After background checks enacted by the U.N. and the British government, the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, enacted in 2014, will expand to include 20,000 more immigrants from refugee camps in Syria, Turkey and Jordan. Although both the U.S. and the UK are doing their part, one could say, in an effort to help relocate disadvantaged and vulnerable refugees, many critics from both sides of the spectrum are calling for more or less action from their governments.

In the U.S., there is an overwhelming call across Republican governors to claim that they will not let Syrian refugees into their states: Texas Governor Greg Abbott tweeted: “Texas will not accept any Syrian refugees & I demand the U.S. act similarly. Security comes first” (Gov. Greg Abbott), and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie told Hugh Hewitt “The fact is that we need appropriate vetting and I don’t think orphans under five are being, you know, should be admitted into the United States at this point” (Krieg). According to Bloomberg Politics Poll, 53% of Americans think that the best approach for the U.S. to take with refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria is to not accept any refugees in and only 28% agree with President Obama’s plan to resettle 10,000 refugees without religious screening and 11% want to resettle only Christian refugees. The fact is that many Americans are afraid of allowing Syrian refugees into their country while there has been some British criticism to allow the refugees into the UK. In fact, Britain has been criticized for not doing more to allow refugees in. Compared with Germany, France and other EU countries, the UK is right above the U.S. in the amount of Syrian refugees being let in. Many political leaders from the Labour Party commend Cameron on his decision to welcome 20,000 refugees but believe they could take in up to 4,000 by the end of 2015.

Statistics aside, the fact is that an overwhelmingly amount of Americans do not want refugees coming into the U.S. despite the support shown in many E.U. countries. In my opinion, which agrees with the majority U.S. Democrats, is to let the refugees in and it is baffling to me that the majority U.S. is not welcoming refugees, when in fact we have let in over 750,000 refugees since the 9/11 attacks in 2001. If xenophobia and nativism fears were sparked then and we continued to let refugees in, then what is the problem with letting them in now? If our security is the best in the world, if we are taking excruciating measures to ensure the safety of Americans now more than ever before, if we are limiting our intake of refugees than that of competitive countries like the United Kingdom, then why is there such a strong fear of refugees?

Fear can do amazing things to people and it is overtaking the minds of many Americans and some British citizens. With this issue there are three major fears exaggerated in American and British citizens psychology: Islamophobia, xenophobia, and nativism. Now, fear can be used as a good thing, it’s human and normal, and in a response to terrorism, can be helpful. But, fear of an idea is spreading much more rapidly than people believe it is, that idea, that religion, is Islam. People are becoming more and more afraid of Islam and Muslims and this fear is helping to feed into radical extremist Islamic group Isis, increasing their authority and power over Syria and the surrounding countries. Comments like that of republican candidates’ Ben Carson comparing refugees to rabid dogs (Ben Carson) or Donald Trump’s abrasive statement, “If I win they’re going back” (Donald Trump) help feed into this fear and mistrust of refugees, many of whom are Muslim. Islamophobia is very basically, the hatred and prejudice against Islam and Islamic people, but in my opinion, extends beyond Muslims to include Arabic, Middle Eastern, and Indian peoples whose ethnic origin interconnect with Islam. In both the UK and the U.S., Islamophobia contributes to the oppression of Muslims by misinterpreting the Koran, giving way to negative stereotypes claiming Islam is “anti-women, cruel, and intolerant” (Achmad).

Living in London has given me the opportunity to meet people from all over the world, understand the differences that create community, and enjoy the welcoming environment that constructs London’s multi-cultural atmosphere. But, despite it being one of the most diverse cities in the world, it has one of the highest rates of anti-Muslim hate crimes in the UK (Allegretti). Remona Aly says it best in The Guardian, “There is a strong sense… that difference is seen not as positive diversity, but as negatively alien: so alien that the basic humanity of others is not even acknowledged.” This fear stems from the psychological response of feeling threatened, creating the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ boundaries to be used on a person-to-person basis (Resnick). The recent events of one Isis member posing as a Syrian refugee in France who contributed to the Paris massacre would naturally magnify that boundary line so; logically people’s fears are heightened. Among other examples, the world is now feeling the same way that Syrians have been feeling and living with for the past fifteen plus years since Assad became president of Syria. From my own personal experience in London I can recount times I’ve seen others treating women wearing hijabs or niqabs differently, giving them double takes and even staring at them fervently. The best possible solution to Islamophobia in democratic societies such as the U.S. and Britain is education. If my generation had grown up reading the Koran and understood from a young age the empowerment and peacefulness of Islam we would not exhibit Islamophobic behaviors today. There needs to be a comprehensive curriculum surrounding Islam beginning in elementary school giving children the chance to attend mosques and museums to look at traditional and modern views on Islam. By starting discussions on social media like the trending video I’m Muslim, But I’m Not… (I’m Muslim) by Buzzfeed that has over 1 million views or Is London Islamophobic? (IS LONDON) discovering peoples word associations with the world Muslim, we can help rid the negative connotations surrounding Islam.

Another common fear of ‘the other’ is xenophobia, which involves an ingroup (the U.S. and Britain separately) fearing the outgroup’s (Syrian refugees) motives, and potential to devalue and deconstruct the ingroup’s societal norms. But instead of fearing the other’s identity, the ingroup focuses on the possibility of losing their own identity. Xenophobia is commonly used to refer to foreigners and immigrants in the context of discrimination and prejudice. The U.S. and UK were keen on helping migrants gain admission into the country, especially the UK, until the Paris massacre shook us up and reclaimed the best of our fears. With the news of a Syrian Muslim working with Isis being able to cross from Greece to France without suspicion raised our concerns, further increasing the potential to display xenophobic attitudes. But, it was the collective patriotism of U.S. representatives that exploited nationalistic attitudes. In a study conducted by New York University researchers tested and measured threats to an ingroup’s social identity finding that when an ingroup feels threatened by an outgroup’s potential to be closer to them (moving into their country) the ingroup’s value is undermined, and that the concept of social identity form from traditional cultural values. The psychological protective mechanisms are only triggered when the ‘enemy’ has the potential to ‘invade’ for lack of a better word, the ingroup’s territory (Xiao). Surprisingly, their research concluded that in order to “mediate the effects of identity threat” we should keep the outgroup closer by changing our physical representation of the world. In an attempt to change our physical representation of the world, we, as a global community, need to be voicing our grievances over this discrimination and empowering minorities to speak out against prejudice they experience. The media easily picks up on stories but, the media needs to use it’s influence to change the discussion on xenophobia. One of these voices is the first Muslim U.S. Congress member Keith Ellison in his Democracy Now! Interview, “They (Republican lawmakers) operate under a philosophical underpinning that the West is at war with Islam and Islam is at war with the West in a defensive posture.” Ellison goes on to say that Republicans are using their own fears to defend their position on refugee asylum but what they are not realizing is their stance will have dire consequences in future economic relations with the EU and the Middle East.

Finally, the final and most illogical fear of Americans and the British is nativism; usually a political notion but, psychological as well, that certain cultural traits are native to one’s country and is used to discriminate immigrants from migrating to that country. Nativism is displayed all over the U.S. and UK from small comments like Jimmy Kimmel asking Emily Blunt if she feels like one of us now that she recently became a U.S. citizen to massive political parties devoted to the opposition of immigration like UKIP. The U.S. and the UK have been highly advocating nativism over the past century, the U.S. with their ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act and then again in the 90’s and continuing into the 2000’s dealing with illegal immigration of Mexicans. The U.K. is infamously known for the 1980’s riots and formation of the British National Party, threatening and eventually killing British Muslims and African-Americans due to racist and nativist fears. These fears are being sparked once again, encouraging U.S. and British citizens to exploit patriotic values of inclusion and pride. Being patriotic creates community but when it excludes immigration, it does more harm than good (Goodman).

The best solution to this hysteria is not to create more fear but to open up discussion over media platforms, educate others about what Islam is and who Muslims are, to not only sympathize with the plight of Syrian refugees but, empathize with them by stepping into their shoes, understanding the prejudice they feel, the hatred they receive for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They devote themselves to a religion, as many Americans and British do, that has brought them peace and love, but now, is being misunderstood and discriminated against, resulting in hate, mistrust, and devastation. Fear has a history of raping culture from diversity and trust and encourages behaviors associated with Islamophobia, xenophobia and nativism and needs to end in order for humanity to thrive, giving rise to love and respect.


Works Cited

Achmad. “Islamophobia and Overcoming Stereotypes.” Voices of Youth. Unicef, 2013. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

Allegretti, Aubrey. “Cameron’s Crackdown On Islamophobia Comes A Little Too Late.” The Huffington Post UK. AOL (UK) Limited, 13 Oct. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

Altman, Alex. “This Is How the Syrian Refugee Screening Process Works.” Time. Time, 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

“Ben Carson: Screen Syrian Refugees like They’re Rabid Dogs – Video.” The Guardian. The Guardian, 20 Nov. 2015. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.

“Donald Trump on Syrian Refugees: ‘If I Win They’re Going Back'” Business Insider. Ed. Lamar Salter. Business Insider UK, 1 Oct. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

Goodman, Amy. “”Nativist Hysteria” Against Syrian Refugees Echoes U.S. Rejection of Jewish Refugees in 1930s.” Democracy Now! Democracy Now!, 24 Nov. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

“Gov. Greg Abbott Says Texas Will Not Accept Any Syrian Refugees.” ABC13 Houston. ABC Inc, 16 Nov. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

I’m Muslim, But I’m Not… Dir. Buzzfeed. YouTube. YouTube, 15 Sept. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

IS LONDON ISLAMOPHOBIC? (SHOCKING ENDING!). Dir. Khaled Siddique. YouTube. YouTube, 10 Sept. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

Krauthhammer, Charles. “Charles Krauthammer: In the Face of Obama’s Failed Middle East Policy, GOP Candidates Slide into Xenophobia.” The Kansas City Star. Kansas City Star, 30 Nov. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

Krieg, Gregory. “Christie on Refugees: Not Even 5-year-old Orphans –” CNN. Cable News Network, 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

Resnick, Brian. “The Science behind Why People Fear Refugees.” Vox. Vox Media, 18 Nov. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

Xiao, Jenny Y., and Jay J. Van Bavel. “Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.” See   Your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer: Social Identity and Identity Threat Shape Representation of Physical Distance 24.10 (2006): 969-70. New York University, 17 Apr. 2012. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.


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