People begin arriving at the Moria Camp health clinic in Lesvos, Greece, before 8 a.m. to sign their names on the waiting list. Clinic staff hand out numbers and give people approximate times to return to see the doctor. Patients and family members press forward, crowding around to hear the instructions repeated in Arabic, French and — on a good day — Farsi.
No one is there to cause trouble, but pulse rates inevitably begin to rise. The sun is already hot, and many camp residents are tired of byzantine rules and the limits of good intentions. They, or their loved ones, have serious mental and physical health issues — issues that likely demand a higher level of care than this tiny clinic can provide.
Between 45 and 60 people sign up each day, which is a little more than 1 percent of the camp’s 5,000-plus residents. About 40 more will arrive with emergencies during the day, and a triage nurse will have to decide if their problem is serious enough to need immediate attention.
These people are suffering, and the clinic is one of their few lifelines. They have endured violence, corruption, lawlessness, assault and theft. Many have been raped — both men and women. They have been assaulted by agents of their own governments as well as insurgents. They have been victims of traffickers and governments along their route. And once they arrive in Europe, they are warehoused here, in shipping containers or tents, as bureaucrats ponder their fate.
But these people are not victims; they are not powerless. In fact, they have taken charge of their situation by seeking to get out of their ravaged hometowns and pursue a better life. They are drawn to us in the West because we represent the opposite of what they have endured: a place of peace rather than violence, where someone’s prosperity is a product of hard work rather than birth or corruption. In the West, laws apply equally to everyone, everyone’s basic rights are protected and respected, and everyone is valued for their talents and hard work.
And so we put them in camps.
As of this week, President Trump has decided to limit the number of refugees allowed into the United States at 45,000 for the coming year. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, this number is fewer than the number of people currently forced to flee their homes each day. The immense failure of Western countries to accommodate refugees is eating away at the legitimacy of our governments’ conceit that they stand for human rights and inclusive societies. It is particularly severe for the United States, a country founded on the principle of providing refuge to thinkers and entrepreneurs who found themselves thwarted or victimized by war and tyranny.
Recently at the United Nations, President Trump mendaciously cited false numbers about the cost of refugees to the United States. In fact, this summer, Trump’s aide Stephen Miller buried research on refugees by the Department of Health and Human Services — apparently because it outlined the net financial benefit that refugees provide to the United States.
But the most important reason for America to accept refugees is not about the financial benefit to American taxpayers: It is about the enormous harm it causes to America’s influence and America’s values when we reject people who are voting with their feet for what America represents.
America has never been about fear. From the Revolution, through World War II, to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the proudest moments of American history have always been when America has opened its arms to partners who share our mission and values. Those partners have had their differences with us — but their essential choice has been in favor of freedom, shared prosperity and the rule of law, and against tyranny and selfishness.
This moment is another key test for the United States. Will we respond to the threats that people face around the world with courage and open arms? Or will we give comfort to the enemies of the United States who say we are weak, selfish and lack the courage of our convictions?
The Trump administration still has time to revise its decision and welcome an increased number of refugees this coming year. If not, it’s up to Congress to decide if they want to let the president do violence to yet another pillar of America’s moral leadership.
Gregory Adams is assisting asylum seekers in Greece. He previously led Oxfam’s advocacy to improve humanitarian and development aid.