Source: The Guardian – by Amanda Holpuch, Alan Yuhas, and Sabrina Siddiqui (Syrian refugee crisis: senators call on US to take in thousands more
Despite the US being a leader in humanitarian aid, the number of Syrian refugees it is set to admit pales in comparison to the 800,000 Germany will take in
Aid groups and at least 14 senators have called on the US government to take in thousands more Syrian refugees by the end of 2016, amid international outcry prompted by shocking images of a three-year-old boy’s body lying face down in the surf in Turkey.
The boy, Aylan Kurdi, his older brother Galip, five, and mother died while trying to reach Europe. The family’s story, and images of Aylan, captured the world’s attention and appeared on the front pages of newspapers worldwide this week.
The US senators have recommended the US take in at least five times more than the approximately 1,500 Syrian refugees that Washington has admitted since the conflict began in 2011.
Despite the US being considered a leader in providing in humanitarian aid, the number of Syrian refugees it is set to admit pales in comparison to the 800,000 people German chancellor Angela Merkel has said Germany will take in this year.
Shannon Scribner, humanitarian policy manager at Oxfam America, said the most useful approach would be for world governments to find a political solution to the crisis in Syria, but since that is not expected any time soon, the organization is pushing for the US to resettle 70,000 Syrian refugees.
The group is also pushing for donors, including the US, to increase the amount of funding they are sending to the World Food Programme, which only has enough money to aid Syria and Lebanon until the end of September. “This is not going to go away any time soon, and what we are hearing from refugees in both Lebanon and Syria is that people are seeing their children becoming increasingly more hungry,” Scribner said.
Oxfam America and other aid groups believe the US also needs to expedite itsresettlement process, while pressuring other communities to accept more refugees.
A State Department official told the Guardian that the US “is committed to maintaining a robust refugee admissions program, and is particularly aware of the needs of the Syrian refugee population”.
The US has admitted approximately 1,500 Syrian refugees since the beginning of the civil war there in 2011, mostly within the last fiscal year. Since April, the number of admitted refugees has more than doubled from an estimate of 700.
“We continue to look at a series of options to increase our Syrian admissions,” the State Department official said, “and expect to see an increase in that number in fiscal year 2016.”
International Rescue Committee president David Miliband on Wednesday called on the US government to resettle 65,000 Syrian refugees before the end of 2016.
Anna Greene, IRC’s director of policy & advocacy for US programs, said the 1,500 people the US has admitted thus far “doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what is needed and what could really make a difference”.
She said that she did not think the refugee crisis was being communicated clearly in the US, making it difficult to get a groundswell of support.
“We do have the capacity to do this; we know how to do it in the United States,” Greene said. “It’s a question of garnering that public support and making it clear that it’s simply unacceptable that women and children are dying and that one of the most tangible ways that we can help is by resettling the most vulnerable.”
Barack Obama has said comparatively little about the refugee crisis as opposed to the US-led war against the extremist group Isis, a campaign to which he devoted a national address last year. Asked on Thursday about US plans to take in more refugees, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said there are no “impending policy changes” and that the US will continue to offer aid to Europe.
“There is certainly capacity in Europe to deal with this problem, and the United States certainly stands with our European partners.”
Earnest rejected the notion that the US had “turned a blind eye” to the situation, or that a more muscular foreign policy on the part of the Obama administration would have prevented the migrant crisis from unfolding.
“The president has made policy decisions in this area that are admittedly very difficult, but his primary focus has been on the best national security interests of the United States. That’s his responsibility as president. But there’s no denying that trying to prevent or at least mitigate widespread and significant humanitarian situations is also in the interest of our country and that’s why you’ve seen the substantial humanitarian assistance that’s been offered.”
Obama’s policy toward the refugees mirrors his wary stance toward the Syrian rebellion before the rise of Isis: billions in humanitarian aid and material support for Middle East allies that can’t escape the consequences of the war.
Last year Obama pledged $1bn in loans to King Abdullah of Jordan, where more than 650,000 refugees live in massive and often strained tent cities. In 2013 he similarly promised $74m in aid to Lebanon, where more than a million people have fled.
The State Department has continued to toe the cautious line of the White House, with spokesman John Kirby saying last week that “the long-term answer is not refugee resettlement, whether in the United States or elsewhere”. Instead, he suggested that a stable Syria represented the solution, even though the country shows only signs of continued descent into war crimes and chaos.
Fourteen Senate Democrats, led by Dick Durbin and Amy Klobuchar, raised the issue with Obama in a letter sent earlier this year. Comparing the crisis to the international failure to protect Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, the senators called on Obama to accept at least half the refugees referred by the UN.
“It is a moral, legal, and national security imperative for the United States to lead by example in addressing the world’s worst refugee crisis of our time.”
On the other side of the aisle, a handful of Republicans led by representative Mike McCaul, have vocally urged the opposite, saying that so many refugees raise “serious national security concerns” and that “the Syrian conflict is a special case” that should temper the US’s historic hospitality toward people fleeing prosecution.
“Screening these refugees is not a task to be taken lightly,” they wrote in a letter to the administration. “We cannot allow the refugee process to become a backdoor for jihadists.”
Refugees hoping to find a safe haven in the US must pass through a gantlet of bureaucracy, security checks and formalities. Every refugee referred to the US is screened by the National Counterterrorism Center, the Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Defense, the FBI and “specially trained” Homeland Security officers, former State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in February.
In 2013, the US only accepted 36 applications, in part due to stringent rules meant to counter potential terrorism.