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In our opinion: Berlin terrorist attacks and refugees

If people are looking for ways to stem the tide of terrorism, perhaps the best way may just be to reach out and help a refugee.

The recent terror attack in Berlin has generated a great deal of criticism aimed at German Chancellor Angela Merkel, particularly with regard to her country’s policy in accepting refugees. Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who has repeatedly complained about Germany’s “open borders” during the refugee crisis, went so far as to tweet a provocative image of Merkel with her hands covered in blood.

This erroneous message — that compassion for war zone refugees leads to terrorism or markedly higher crime — has extended well beyond Berlin and Merkel. Such misperceptions are increasingly strong across Europe and even the United States.

Yet, these perceptions are rarely based on solid data. As the Atlantic reported, “The pervasive fear of refugee-related crime on display both in German public opinion polls and Hoaxmap rumors is out of sync with the data so far on the actual relationship between refugees and crime rates in Germany.”

According to Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Agency numbers, the 2015 influx of refugees “had a low impact on crime numbers relative to the natural uptick that would happen with any population increase.”

This should not be interpreted as a call to lower appropriate safeguards in accepting refugees. Countries have an obligation to secure their borders and thoroughly screen and vet those who enter. However, informed citizens should be concerned when compassion for the truly vulnerable diminishes and public opinion and policy shift based on incomplete information.

Berlin’s now deceased terror suspect was from Tunisia, and he was denied asylum status in Germany this past summer and put under surveillance by German authorities. The idea that a Tunisian national denied asylum and living in the country illegally with fake passports should reflect on the status of vetted refugees fleeing a war zone in Syria is misguided. The distinction between a refugee from a war zone and an economic refugee from, say, Tunisia, is important. Those from North Africa who are not given asylum and set for deportation are one category, and their actions shouldn't preclude Europe and the United States from helping truly desperate refugees from Syria and elsewhere.

Given this particular terrorist’s willingness to forge documents to subvert the system, it seems unlikely that his deadly purposes would have been thwarted by making it harder for legitimate refugees to seek help. It’s also important to consider the very real impact that turning a blind eye to evil will have on the lives of those who are looking for help. Terrorists recruit from the ranks of the angry and the disaffected, and if the West decides that it has no responsibility to alleviate suffering, those ranks are likely to grow. Compassion is a great antidote to anger, and helping a refugee is a recipe for diffusing the kind of rage that provokes people to violence.

While all the nations of the world have a responsibility to secure and protect their borders, including rigorously vetting those who enter, they also have a duty to care for those who have been uprooted from their homes and put in harm’s way through no fault of their own. Abandoning that responsibility will lead to more pain and suffering, not less. If people are looking for ways to stem the tide of terrorism, one of the best ways may just be to reach out and help a refugee.