back to top

Refugee Crisis Puts Pressure On U.S. To Take In Thousands Fleeing Syria

Advocates and some legislators are calling on the White House to dramatically increase the number of refugees welcomed in the U.S. to 65,000 by the end of 2016.

Posted on

More than 4 million people have fled war-torn Syria since 2011, but the United States has received only a tiny fraction of the refugees that have escaped civil war and sparked a humanitarian crisis as they flee to Europe.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres declared it the "biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation."

But in the last five years since civil war erupted in Syria, the United States has resettled just 1,500 people, suggesting a sharp departure from past practice where the U.S. played a leading role in resettling refugees during a humanitarian crisis.

Advocates and some legislators are now calling on the White House and the State Department to dramatically increase the number of refugees welcomed in the U.S. to 65,000 by the end of 2016.

Politics and concerns over national security, however, pose a hurdle for those asking the U.S. to accept more Syrian refugees within its borders.

According to the State Department, the U.S. plans to grant another 300 Syrians refugee status by the end of October, a plan that the International Rescue Committee called "woefully inadequate" considering the scope of the crisis.

"That number is what we would call business as usual," Anna Green of the International Rescue Committee told BuzzFeed News. "That is not an emergency response."

The organization helps refugees settle in their new homes and has assisted 270 Syrians settle in the U.S. since 2011.

Muhammed Muheisen / AP

A Syrian refugee girl, Zubaida Faisal, 10, skips a rope while she and other children play near their tents at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan.

Last year, the United Nations' Refugee Agency asked the international community to resettle a total of 130,000 Syrian refugees, considered the most in-need. While the U.S. has previously taken in as many as 50% of refugees requested by the U.N., State Department officials have given no indication that the number allowed into the country at this time will be dramatically increased.

Instead, officials have pointed out that the U.S. has donated about $4 billion in humanitarian aid since the fighting began.

"There's a lot of terrorist groups operating in that region, that part of the world, and we need to make sure that, fundamentally, that we protect the national security of the United States," Mark Toner, spokesman for the State Department said during a press briefing Thursday.

Toner said the review process, including security checks, for an applicant from Syria could take 18 to 24 months.

"We've put more resources behind some of these background checks," he said. "But the fact of the matter is they do need to be thoroughly vetted."

According to refugee admission statistics from the State Department, only 105 refugees were allowed into the U.S. in 2014. The year before that, 36.

So far this year, more than 650 people from Syria have entered the country as refugees, despite more than 15,000 refugee applications being forwarded to the U.S.

"The bottom line is that there's a political issue here," Green said.

Advertisement

The annual cap of refugees admitted into the country currently stands at about 70,000 and though there are efforts to increase it in light of the current crisis, some legislators have already reached out to President Obama in opposition.

"There is a real risk that individuals associated with terrorist groups will attempt to exploit the refugee resettlement program in order to gain entry into our country," Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul wrote in a letter to White House. "Terrorist networks are constantly probing our defenses anad would not hesitate to manipulate a program meant to save those fleeing violence."

Green disputed the claim, stating there is no indication that security checks already in place wouldn't work.

"All refugees are generally fleeing violent conflict," she said.

Later this month, the White House is expected to confer with members of Congress to discuss the allotment of refugee entries, Green said. An announcement is expected by the end of the month.

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and 13 other senators in May also urged the president to increase the number of entries granted to Syrians, calling it the "worst refugee crisis since World War II."

Ben Marter, spokesman for Durbin, told BuzzFeed News the Illinois senator also wants the number increased to 65,000 by next year.

Green said though dramatic, the U.S. has proved in the past it can handle the surge, such as during the Kosovo War in the 1990s.

"We are perfectly capable of doing that if we need to," Green said. "What we need is a really decisive response."


Salvador Hernandez is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.

Contact Salvador Hernandez at salvador.hernandez@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.

Promoted