The Obama administration has announced that it will take in 2,000 Syrian refugees, the first group to be resettled in the U.S. 2 ½ years after the start of the Syrian war. The conflict has resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 and has created 1.6 million refugees according to the latest statistics from the United Nations (U.N.). With no end in sight, there will be an increasing demand for neighboring countries, as well as the U.S., to share the burdens when it comes to absorption and resettlement.
Foreign Policy’s The Cable reports that the announcement marks a break in policy for the U.S., which typically maintains a strict process for the application and absorption of refugees and asylum seekers.
“Unlike previous efforts by the Department of Homeland Security to give temporary protected status to Syrians already in the United States, the State Department effort will bring in Syrians from overseas for permanent resettlement in America,” The Cable reports.
“Referrals will come within the next four months. We will need to interview people and perform security and medical checks,” said Kelly Clements, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration.”
Absorbing 2,000 refugees from a conflict that has created millions of refugees is a drop in the bucket, but is partly a reflection of the complex public-private process that uses government and nonprofit resources to resettle populations. “I think it’s a complex issue,” said Erol Kekic, director of the Immigration and Refugee Program for global humanitarian agency Church World Service in a statement to Mint Press News.
“I’m sure everyone who will enter the U.S. has been security vetted. There is a requirement that everyone who wishes to enter submits a refugee claim. I think that the 2,000 figure is a good figure. We welcome it, but we hope that the numbers will increase as we go along,” Kekic said.
The number may be small, but those working in refugee resettlement projects emphasize that those eligible for resettlement are among the most vulnerable civilians caught in the crossfire of war. “The criteria will be the most vulnerable refugees, most usually women and children, people who are sick and will not make it if we [U.S.] don’t help them get out,” said Lavinia Limon, President and CEO of U.S. Committee for Refugees, to Mint Press News.
Others working on the ground have also applauded the announcement but warn that the long security vetting process will only allow the refugee problem to fester. “It’s 90 degrees now, but in a few months it’s going to snow and people are going to be freezing,” said Noah Gottschalk, Oxfam America’s senior humanitarian policy adviser. “They don’t have many options and many are living in unfinished buildings, abandoned shopping malls, schools, mosques and parking garages.”
Thus far it has been Syria’s neighbors who have stepped forward in the absence of further international support, namely Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, collectively taking in about 2 million. “Other countries have stepped forward in this responsibility-sharing exercise. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have opened their doors to over 2 million,” Kekic said.
Despite collectively representing 1/10 the land area and a fraction of U.S. resources, these countries have been forced to share the burden, partly due to their close proximity to the conflict.
Many in humanitarian and refugee work now say it is the duty of wealthier countries to ensure that these host countries have the tools to properly feed, house and integrate these populations.
“There’s over 2 million refugees. This is a tremendously horrible humanitarian emergency. I have been to Jordan twice in the past year and it’s just gut wrenching to see what these people have been through. It has been difficult for the government and people of Jordan, and Jordan is not a wealthy country in resources or money,” Limon said.
The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan alone holds 130,000 people, according to U.N. statistics.
“The U.S. could provide more of a leadership role to provide resources. There is no way that between 2 and 3 million Syrians are going to be resettled. That’s just a reality. We need to help Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan,” Limon said.
Are U.S. policies to blame?
How does the U.S. refugee policy fare when compared with other states? Experts point to two major statistics when considering how well a country hosts refugees. When it comes to sheer absorption — that is, keeping borders open to those fleeing war and political crises, the U.S. lags far behind Pakistan, Iran and other countries neighboring conflict-ridden countries.
Pakistan and Iran, hosting 1.7 million and 887,000 refugees respectively host far more refugees because of their proximity to Afghanistan, a country that has produced more than 2.5 million refugees as a result of the U.S.-led NATO war.
When it comes to resettlement, the active process of seeking out refugees, vetting and then permanently resettling refugees, Washington is a world leader, taking in 50,000-70,000 per year.
“We have an annual quota that is established by Presidential decree. The Department of State works on a proposal, the President then puts the goal forward. This year the goal is 70,000,” Kekic said.
Syria, once a country hosting a large number of refugees during the Iraq War 2003–2011, has now become one of the largest producers of refugees. Some who fled Iraq for Syria will now have to pack up and leave again, as a result of this conflict, creating a complicated situation for U.N. refugee agencies.
“There are the leftovers of the Iraq crisis in Syria. The U.N. needs to re-register them, it really becomes a rather complex issue,” Kekic said.
What will it take to get more Syrian refugees into the country?
Experts say that there is more that the U.S. could be doing, but Washington has already made significant contributions to aid and humanitarian assistance. “In 2012 the total amount of aid and humanitarian assistance was $3.8 billion globally. One of the things that we should be proud of. We always think that there is room for more. Obviously there is room for more engagement led by the U.N.,” Kekic said.
Others point to the crisis of housing, rather than proper resettlement that needs to be addressed if the Syrian conflict continues and people are unable to return home in a timely manner.
“Keeping people in refugee camps is the housing of human beings, it’s illegal under international law. The International law outlines the rights of refugees. When we keep them in camps, by force, we are collectively violating people’s rights. There have been people in these camps 20, 30, 50 years or longer. The poster child of this problem has been the Palestinians because the conflict has not been resolved,” Limon said.
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