23 Mar 2015
The brutal conflict in Syria, which has entered its fifth year, is a true horror. The death, destruction and displacement, now extended into Iraq, constitute the defining humanitarian crisis of this century so far. Yet it appears that the world has become desensitised to the mounting human misery. UN appeals for humanitarian help are going increasingly underfunded. The UN special envoy to Syria has narrowed his goal to a temporary ceasefire in one city. The rules of war and norms of civilian protection have been torn to shreds. In the face of a dismaying political stalemate on the big questions of war and peace, there is every reason to use one of the few tools to ease the suffering of Syrians that is wholly within the power of the West. It is well past time for the US and other western countries to commit to a dramatic boost in the resettlement of Syrian refugees. Resettlement will not end the war, but it can rescue some of the most vulnerable victims of the fighting — the raped and tortured, at-risk women and children, those with acute medical needs. So far, the bulk of the burden has fallen on Syria’s neighbours. Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq have taken in around 4 million refugees combined. Lebanon’s population alone has climbed by 25 per cent. Imagine the equivalent impact of 80 million refugees fleeing to the US. But Syria’s neighbours have reached their limits. Health clinics, schools and other infrastructure are badly strained. A backlash has started. The US has resettled 546 Syrian refugees over the past four years. Other western countries haven’t done much better, though Germany has pledged to take 35,000 of the 130,000 whom the UN refugee agency has asked the international community to resettle before the end of 2016. All told, the US refugee resettlement programme currently helps some 70,000 people a year from all parts of the world. The US can take three essential steps to mobilise this programme to help the most vulnerable Syrians. First, in light of the dire situation in Syria, it can raise the 70,000 cap specifically to accommodate Syrian refugees over the next two years. By historical standards, the US should be committing to take around 65,000 — or 50 per cent — of those identified by the UN for resettlement by the end of 2016. Achieving that would require an increase in resources to allow for swifter processing by the Department of Homeland Security — including the more than 10,000 refugees waiting for a US resettlement interview, as well as the 1,000 new applications being received from the UN each month.