President Barack Obama has directed officials to prepare to accommodate at least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year — a number around six times greater than the total taken in by the U.S. over the first four-and-a-half years of the Middle East conflict.
In what the White House described as a "significant scaling up" of Washington's response to a crisis, the administration said it would accept thousands more people fleeing the war and would provide for their basic needs.
To date, the U.S. has accepted around 1,500 Syrians displaced by years of fighting — a tiny percentage of the 11.6 million people who have been chased out the country or uprooted from their homes.
In announcing the increased numbers, White House press secretary Josh Earnest noted that the administration had provided around $4 billion to relief agencies helping Syrian refugees. But he added that Obama has decided that admitting more people would help boost the U.S. response.
The move comes amid an ongoing crisis in Europe, where hundreds of thousands of people fleeing bloodshed are looking to resettle. And the administration's announcement Thursday followed criticism that the U.S. had not been pulling its weight when it came to taking in Syrian refugees.
A White House petition published on Aug. 31 calling for Washington to resettle 65,000 Syrian refugees has so far garnered more than 62,000 signatures.
Even with the increase, the number of Syrians that the U.S. is willing to give sanctuary to represents a tiny proportion of those needing resettlement. More than four million Syrians have fled the country since the war started and at least seven million have been displaced internally.
The perceived slow response from Washington is a contrast to previous conflicts. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the U.S. accepted more than a million refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. In 1999, tens of thousands of mostly Muslim Kosovar Albanians were flown to the U.S., processed at Fort Dix in New Jersey and ultimately resettled. During the Iraq war, more than 50,000 refugees were allowed to come under a special, expedited program for people whose religious beliefs or past work for the U.S. military put their lives at risk.
But what those crises involved and Syria's may lack is a sense of U.S. responsibility. Refugee operations in Southeast Asia followed years of U.S. warfare there, as did the decision to take in tens of thousands of Iraqis over the last decade.
Al Jazeera and wire services