KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — President Barack Obama is planning to visit a refugee center in Malaysia, casting a spotlight on the plight of those fleeing violence and persecution from Myanmar to Syria.
Obama's tour of the Dignity for Children Foundation on Saturday comes amid a raging debate back home over Obama's plan to allow thousands of Syrian refugees to resettle in the U.S. The foundation provides schooling and assistance to refugees who have fled to Kuala Lumpur, and Obama's aides said he intended his visit to illustrate how an escalating global refugee crisis only increases prospects for violence that could reach America's shores.
"We can't say to other countries, 'You need to take in refugees, you need to take your fair share, but we're going to slam the door,'" said Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, predicting other nations would follow suit. "Suddenly you have masses of displaced peoples who are essentially in limbo. That clearly is a recipe for greater instability."
Pervasive concerns that Islamic extremists could slip into the United States and commit attacks like those in Paris have led many U.S. lawmakers to insist Obama's refugee program be halted or, at a minimum, that entry requirements be tightened. Obama has refused to entertain either idea.
The president has insisted he'll veto a bill in Congress raising the bar for entry for Syrian refugees. The measure passed the House by an overwhelming, veto-proof margin that included scores of Democrats.
Obama sought to change the subject Friday by throwing his support behind budding efforts to reform the visa waiver process, but those proposals seemed highly unlikely to satisfy critics who want the refugee program halted. Obama wants to take in roughly 10,000 Syrians in the next year.
Many of the refugees living in Malaysia are Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group. Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar to escape persecution by the country's Buddhist majority.
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.
The refugee debate has played out this week as Obama traveled to Turkey, the Philippines and Malaysia, but it will confront him directly when he returns to Washington early Monday. One of his first orders of business will be a meeting with French President Francois Hollande, who is vowing war against the Islamic Stage group as nations across Europe clamp down on border controls out of fear that terrorists could strike again.