12 Dec 2014
Since the start of the war in Syria in early 2011, the number of people fleeing the country has swelled to more than 3 million – half of them children. The US has accepted only a staggering few – just 36 in 2013. Though the US has recently pledged to accept thousands more over the next few years, the resettlement process is complex and protracted. In some cases, refugees are left waiting in camps for up to three years before they are cleared to board a plane to America. This is in part due to sweeping US counter-terrorism laws that have, until recently, been ensnaring Syrians who pose no threat. With no end in sight to the country’s brutal war, which has claimed upwards of 190,000 lives, according to the UN’s latest figures, refugee advocacy groups are calling on the US to fast-track the process for Syria’s most vulnerable and absorb a greater number of its refugees. Since the US-led coalition against Isis began conducting air strikes within Syria two weeks ago, likely pushing more refugees across borders, there is a heightened sense of urgency. Less than a year ago, the number of registered Syrian refugees stood at just 2 million, spread across Syria’s neighbouring countries. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) recently pointed to “increasingly horrifying conditions inside the country”, which likely included atrocities committed by the Assad regime and extremist militant groups like Isis, to explain the explosion in the number of refugees over the past year. The majority of displaced Syrians have crossed into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, with close to 1.2 million of those in Lebanon alone – though aid agencies concede the number could be much higher owing to unregistered refugees who have settled in makeshift communities. Additionally, the war has also displaced 6.5 million people within Syria, meaning that roughly 50% of all Syrians have been forced to flee their homes. “The key challenge in the Middle East is the fast-moving situation and high numbers of refugees and internally displaced people involved. In the past week in Turkey for example, we had another 160,000 refugees flee and need urgent life-saving aid,” said Ariane Rummery, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR’s Middle East and North Africa division. Resettlement: not a top priority The US – which traditionally accepts more refugees than any other country – has resettled 191 Syrian refugees since March 2011, although the vast majority of these applied for resettlement before the conflict broke out, a State Department spokesperson said in an email. The UN has repeatedly called on world leaders to resettle Syria’s displaced, and relieve the heavy burden placed on its neighbours. The international community has pledged to resettle more than 33,000 displaced Syrians by the end of 2014, with the UNHCR setting a new target of 130,000 by the end of 2016. The US, however, does not view resettlement as its top priority. “Our primary goal is to provide humanitarian assistance and protection to refugees in the places to which they have fled,” a State Department representative said. The US has so far donated more than $2.9bn in humanitarian aid funds, making it the largest single donor. Shannon Scribner, humanitarian policy manager at Oxfam America, said the US needs to increase its response to the growing refugee crisis. “The recent military intervention does put an onus on the US to think about and strategise a plan for the impact that [the air strikes] may have on the region and the refugees it creates,” Scribner saidThe reason the US has taken only a tiny number of refugees to date is more procedural than political, said Anna Greene, the policy and advocacy director for US programmes at the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “It’s not a question of the US refusing to take cases,” she said. “This was a structural reality.” Greene said the UN prioritised sending refugees to other countries, especially European ones like Germany, because they had already made specific pledges. Though the US has still not committed to taking a certain number of refugees, a State Department representative said the US expects to resettle “many thousands more in 2015 and 2016”. Given that the US resettlement process can take an average of 12 months to complete, Greene said she would “expect to see those cases coming to the US next summer and fall”. The US formally set up a resettlement programme for refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict last fall. A refugee’s resettlement process to the US typically begins with a referral from the UNHCR. The refugees then undergo extensive background checks and are interviewed abroad by a Department of Homeland Security field officer. When a person or family is finally deemed admissible, they will complete a final security and medical check and cultural orientation training before boarding the plane to America. The entire process generally takes 12 months, but it can last up to three years. “It should be noted in the case of the US and in other countries, refugees also pay for some of their resettlement costs – such as airplane tickets,” said Larry Yungk, the senior resettlement officer at UNHCR Washington. “In the US, refugees pay for these costs through a loan system,” which can be an added complication for some. But when refugees are relocated to the US, it’s for good. The resettlement programme is designed to set refugees on a path to citizenship. Upon arrival, refugees are initially cared for by one of the more than a dozen NGOs, which will help them find housing, work and schools for their childrenMany Syrians fleeing violence in their native country will qualify for refugee status based on the US definition, which requires a “fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” But US counter-terrorism laws, beefed up in the wake of 9/11, can be a real barrier to admission. Until recently, Syrians who provided “material support” to groups the US identified as terror organisations could be barred from refugee status, even if they did not actually pose any threat to the US. Human Rights First gives as one hypothetical example the owner of a food stand in a neighbourhood under opposition control who sold falafel sandwiches to fighters.