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Rights and aid groups call on US to resettle more Syrian refugees

Panel urges US administration to accept 100,000 Syrian refugees, work with Tehran and address crisis’ causes

International human rights and aid organizations on Tuesday criticized the United States’ recent pledge to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees, saying Washington needs to accept at least 10 times that number to help alleviate pressure on overburdened Middle Eastern and European countries.

The organizations, which included Save the Children and Oxfam America, also called on Washington to invoke newly reestablished ties with Iran — an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — to find a lasting political solution to Syria’s four-year-old war. The conflict has killed more than 320,000 Syrians, including 11,493 children, and sparked the largest refugee crisis since World War II, according to the London-Based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“You’re seeing in the press Europeans waffling on the numbers” of refugees it is willing to accept, Carolyn Miles, president of Save The Children, told reporters Tuesday in a telephone news conference involving five humanitarian organizations. “If the U.S. came out and said, ‘We will take in 100,000 refugees,’ that would change things. It’s only 3 percent of the 4 million Syrian refugees, but U.S. leadership is important.”

Syria’s neighbors — including Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan — have already accepted an overwhelming share of Syrian refugees and are struggling to cope with the burden this has placed on infrastructure and public services, the rights groups said.

“One in four people in Lebanon is Syrian,” said Paul O’Brien, vice president for policy and campaigns at Oxfam America. There are well over a million Syrians in Lebanon, according to U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. Over 1.9 million are registered in Turkey and over 629,00 in Jordan, UNHCR has reported. 

During Tuesday's teleconference, Suzanne Akhras, director of the Syrian Community Network, called on the U.S. to resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016.

In other efforts, a petition on the White House website asking the Obama administration to accept at least 65,000 refugees had by Tuesday received almost 77,000 signatures. A total of 100,000 is needed by Sept. 30 for formal consideration.

What humanitarian groups have described as a dearth of popular support for resettling refugees in the U.S. comes as some Republican contenders in the 2016 presidential race question the refugees’ motives. Mike Huckabee asked an audience at a forum last weekend if the refugees are “really escaping tyranny, are they escaping poverty or are they really just coming because we’ve got cable TV?” The Week reported. 

Other politicians have expressed fears that some refugees could be members of armed groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson told CNN this week that some of the young men the U.S. would accept "could easily be people who could be infiltrated by terrorists."

Aid workers have attempted to allay such concerns. “Our vetting processes here in the United States, they are so deep and rigorous, there is a very low risk for Americans taking in resettlement refugees,” Oxfam’s O’Brien said.

The deaths of Syrian children Alan Shenu and his brother Galip earlier this month — and images of the children circulated widely in the news media and online — have rallied public support for a response to the crisis in Syria, more than four years after peaceful opposition protests there escalated into civil war, activists say.

Miles of Save The Children said that in the first eight months of 2015, the organization raised $200,000 for its efforts, which include bolstering services to refugee children in the Middle East and elsewhere. But in the little over two weeks since photos emerged of 3-year-old Alan’s body, washed ashore on a Turkish beach after an attempted voyage to Greece, the organization has raised over $1 million. 

“We’ve seen a big uptick of the private sector coming to the table where they weren’t there before,” she said, explaining that the images helped put a “human” face on the death tolls.

Rights groups added that while resettling more refugees would temporarily help mitigate the crisis, the U.S. must capitalize on its renewed diplomacy with Iran to come up with a lasting political solution to the conflict. Tehran has long supported the Assad regime, whose military, director of Physicians for Human Rights Donna McKay charged, has bombed a number of hospitals in recent days because they “bear witness” to human rights abuses.

With an administration in Tehran willing to talk, O’Brien said, the political calculus around the Syria crisis “is fundamentally different from what we were dealing with months ago.”

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