U.S. aid to Syrian refugees generally stops at the border
By Anne Gearan, Washington Post, December 27, 2013
Only a tiny number of the more than 2 million refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war can meet the requirements to be resettled in the United States, frustrating international relief officials who say the numbers needing help could nearly double in the coming year.
The Obama administration allowed only 90 Syrian refugees to make permanent homes in the United States from the start of the Syrian civil war through September. About 50 made the journey from camps outside Syria to live in the United States over the past year, including 20 admitted since Oct. 1.
The trickle reflects the difficulty of resettling people during wartime, as well as a lack of political pressure on the United States to do more.
U.S. officials say their efforts in Syria have been focused on providing immediate humanitarian relief. They also note that resettlement policy strongly favors refugees who are targeted for persecution based on religion, politics or sexuality—criteria not met by most Syrian refugees.
International relief officials say they are frustrated by the small number of refugees admitted, as well as the long waiting times and high security hurdles applicants must navigate for resettlement in the United States. But officials are reluctant to say the very small numbers making it to U.S. shores mean that the United States isn’t pulling its weight.
Instead, many are hopeful about a new resettlement campaign by the Obama administration to bring up to 2,000 Syrians to the United States over the coming year, part of a stepped-up United Nations effort to permanently resettle more Syrians in other countries.
"We’re definitely trying to gear up," said Larry Yungk, who works to coordinate U.S. resettlement efforts for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "The United States has pledged to be a major part of this."
As desperate and horrifying as the circumstances of most of those 2 million refugees are, only a minority meet U.N. and U.S. requirements for people so vulnerable that they simply can never go home again. Resettlement is the refuge of last resort and typically a sad hallmark of permanent political or sectarian shifts.
Refugees have to overcome stringent U.S. anti-terrorism security requirements before they can be admitted. The vetting process, which can take up to a year, screens out many whose path through Syria’s complex civil war is messy or undocumented.
Overall, the United States accepts more permanent refugees than any other nation—more than half the number selected for worldwide resettlement each year. Nearly 60,000 came to the United States from around the world in 2012, the last year for which complete figures have been published. Only 31 of them were from Syria.
The United States has been the largest single donor to humanitarian efforts for Syrians over the nearly three-year civil war—about $1.4 billion to date.
Almost all the money is spent helping people inside Syria or in camps and communities in countries bordering it. In the three years since the civil war began, more than 800,000 Syrian refugees have flooded into Lebanon, and they now account for as much as 20 percent of that country’s population. An additional 1 million Syrians are estimated to have fled to Jordan and Turkey.
U.S. officials say the response is practical and generous, and international relief agencies generally agree. Still, as the Syrian civil war grinds on and with predictions of the refugee population nearly doubling over the coming year, the paucity of Syrians allowed permanent refuge in the self-described nation of immigrants is striking.
The underlying assumption has been that the Syrian exodus—the largest mass movement of people in recent years—is temporary and reversible when fighting subsides or ends.
That belief is beginning to change as the conflict approaches its fourth year. The UNHCR began shifting emphasis toward long-term relocation of Syrian refugees several months ago, in recognition that the flow of people is overwhelming neighboring nations and is unlikely to stop or slow.
Even if the Bashar al-Assad regime and rebels agreed to a cease-fire, many refugees would be reluctant to return home quickly.
And Syria’s economy and institutions will need years to recover once the violence stops.
"One of our big concerns is, how do we continue to do the work in 2014, 2015, 2016?" said Andrew Harper, UNHCR’s senior official in Jordan. "There’s not one positive indicator."