International

Syria's huddled masses

Commentary: The United States should welcome war refugees with open arms

Syrian refugees gather for food aid at Kawergost refugee camp in Irbil, Iraq, in August.
Hadi Mizban/AP

In the American debate over whether President Barack Obama should intervene militarily in Syria or adopt a Russian proposal to eliminate the country’s chemical weapons, there is one important group that has received insufficient attention: Syria’s approximately 2 million refugees and 4.25 million internally displaced citizens. Many observers expect that a military strike on the Assad regime would exacerbate this refugee crisis. But even if an attack actually relieved the crisis, Washington’s policies toward the refugees would remain woefully inadequate.

The United States has long offered sanctuary for those fleeing political persecution or humanitarian crises. During World War II, the U.S. accepted 250,000 refugees fleeing the war in Europe. In 1948, Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act, which allowed an additional 400,000 war refugees to come to our shores. Since then, the United States has continued to provide safe harbor: An estimated 3 million refugees have resettled here since 1975.

Syrians fleeing the war or trying to avoid going home to it, however, have not experienced such kindness. In early 2012, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) petitioned for Temporary Protective Status (TPS) for Syrians already here on visas. Within 60 days Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano granted TPS status to Syrians, enabling them to join citizens of seven other countries who fear natural disasters or violent conflicts at home. This status allowed Syrian immigrants to stay for an additional 15 months. In June of this year, the Department of Homeland Security redesignated TPS status for Syria, extending the period until March 2015 -- a sign that the U.S. government believed the Syrian conflict would not end any time soon. According to Abed A. Ayoub, legal director of the ADC, nearly 4,000 TPS applications have been approved to date, out of around 8,000 eligible Syrians here. Many applications are still being processed, but, according to Ayoub, “nobody’s getting deported to Syria” because of visa overstays -- a recognition by the Obama administration of the dire humanitarian situation there.

Although extension of TPS status has undoubtedly helped those already in the U.S., Syrians seeking to come here have not been so fortunate. Late last month, the Obama administration decided to accept 2,000 refugees, up from the 90 or so Syrian refugees who had been permanently admitted to the U.S. during the conflict. Significant indeed, although even this small number of applications will take months to process. “We’re not likely to see Syrian refugees in those numbers (until) well into 2014,” said Kelly Clements, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for population, refugees, and migration, about the waiting times. According to Ayoub, more than 1,000 Syrians applied for asylum in the United States in the third quarter of 2013 alone, and many more are likely unable to get the proper documentation to even apply.

The cost of 368 Tomahawk missiles would make up the remaining refugee funds requested by the U.N.

Two thousand refugees is one-tenth of 1 percent of the total Syrian refugee population, and represents a small fraction of the population that Syria’s neighbors are taking on. For example, Lebanon -- a country of only 4.3 million people -- is estimated to be hosting more than 726,000 refugees from the Syrian conflict.

American Syrian refugee policy pales in comparison not only to those of Syria’s neighbors but also to the policies of some Western European states, which have historically been far more hostile to immigrants than the U.S. Earlier this month, Sweden granted permanent residency to the 8,000 Syrians who had been in the country under temporary status. Sweden’s bold move made it the first country in the European Union to take such a step. “The agency made this decision now because it believes the violence in Syria will not end in the near future,” said a spokeswoman for Sweden’s migration agency. Meanwhile, Germany just this week began accepting the first of 5,000 refugees.

Smart resettlement policy has been crucial to alleviating past humanitarian disasters. From 1992 to 2007, the State Department resettled 131,000 refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina in the United States. This relatively generous policy enabled Bosnians to rebuild their lives. “If we went to Bosnia, we would have been refugees in our country, and by being refugees in America we at least knew that we wouldn’t have to live in war anymore,” Dzenan Selimovic, now a police officer in Syracuse, N.Y., told The Post-Standard about his gratefulness for America’s Bosnian refugee policy.

As for Syria’s exiles in the region, they languish in underfunded and overcrowded camps. The U.N. refugee agency has received only half of the $1.1 billion it requested from international donors; of the $548 million that has been received, the United States has donated 40 percent. To put that into perspective, the cost of a single Tomahawk cruise missile is approximately $1.5 million. Therefore, the cost of 368 of them would make up the remaining refugee funds requested. Without proper funding, these camps fail to provide the opportunity for a normal life. A U.N. report in April found that children at one location -- Zatari camp in Jordan -- are sometimes forced to beg due to lack of food, and three out of four school-age children don’t attend school.

While military intervention raises complex and contentious issues, the question of whether the U.S. can and should do more to help Syria’s refugees is an easy one. Any action in Syria worthy of the label “humanitarian” should meet this minimal requirement.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter