The Syrian Refugee Crisis – What is happening, what can we do?

In light of the half truths and untruths being floated by various political candidates, I thought it would be a good idea to go to someone who has a firm base of knowledge on the topic of immigration and refugees.  The United States has traditionally taken in immigrants fleeing war, oppression and starvation.  It appears that some are allowing fear and xenophobia to cloud what the United States has stood for.  Guest Blogger Geri Kahn, an immigration attorney based in California, dispels some of the myths, and gives us a call to action.  Please feel free to share your thoughts!
Refugees from Syria, Photo Credit UNHCR/I.Prickett



It is overwhelming to think about the Syrian refugee crisis.  The numbers are staggering.   There are over four million people outside of Syria (4,598,691 as of February 7, 2016) who have left Syria for Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and North Africa, according to statistics  kept by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”).  And according to UNHCR, these numbers do not include approximately 7.6 million who are displaced inside Syria, many of whom are in remote locations and difficult to reach.  In Europe, 813,599 Syrians have applied for asylum.

This is the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation. It is a population that needs the support of the world but is instead living in dire conditions and sinking deeper into poverty,” reported  UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres.
Looking at the numbers another way, 95% of the refugees are in five countries:  Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey.  In Lebanon alone, there are approximately 1.2 million refugees from Syria which amounts to around one in five people in the country.  Other key facts, according to Amnesty International:
  • Gulf countries including Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees.
  • Other high income countries including Russia, Japan, Singapore and South Korea have also offered zero resettlement places.
  • Germany has pledged 35,000 places for Syrian refugees through its humanitarian admission program and individual sponsorship; about 75 % of the EU total.
  • Excluding Germany and Sweden, the remaining 26 EU countries have pledged around 8,700, or around 0.2% of Syrian refugees in the main host countries.
In the United States, the numbers of Syrian refugees admitted since the Syrian war has been pathetic:
  • Fiscal year 2011 – 29
  • Fiscal year 2012 – 31
  • Fiscal year 2013 – 36
  • Fiscal year 2014 – 105
  • Fiscal year 2015 –  1,682
The United States has committed to increase the overall total of refugees to 85,000 in FY2016, with at least 10,000 Syrian refugees, and to 100,000 in FY2017.  Yet, this process has been slow, not only because of the time it takes to properly vet refugees and process them, but because of the public opinion in this country.
A friend of mine was at party earlier this year when a former refugee (now a citizen), made a remark about not wanting to allow Syrians into the United States because they “are all terrorists.”  Indeed, this is the rhetoric that is going around, spread in part, by people running for political office.  On January 20, 2016, the Senate blocked  H.R. 4038: American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act of 2015, which would have halted the U.S. refugee resettlement program for Syrian and Iraqi refugees.  It is good that this Bill did not pass but it seems like the anti-refugee rhetoric is not over.
It is actually difficult to be admitted as a refugee into the United States.  Below is a chart which shows the process.  You can see the bigger version of it here.
Refugees must clear multiple layers of security checks that typically take 2 years before they are brought to the U.S. The Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies are part of this multi-step process.  As Emily Gray, the executive director of World Relief, a refugee aid agency, told the New York Times, ‘‘You’d have to be a really stupid terrorist to come this way.’’
Of course the best way to end the refugee crisis would be to mend the conditions in Syria.  This does not seem to be happening so while that is optimal, it is not a solution to the problem right now.  What can be done?
  • I think the first thing that we should all do is educate ourselves.  UNHCR, Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department all have terrific web sites.  Simply stating that “Syrians are all terrorists” does not make the problem go away.  Since we are in the midst of a refugee crisis, the biggest since WWII, we should all be concerned.  It is a humanitarian crisis.  It is also a political one.  The refugees pouring into their neighboring countries are going to countries that are unstable themselves.  It will be far more difficult to quash more political disputes that are bound to rise up when there is no, food, employment, housing, than if we resettle refugees.
  • Convince Congress to put political pressure on those countries that have not accepted refugees to accept them.  It is rather appalling that the Gulf countries have not done anything to accept refugees.  We are allies.  Why is there no world-wide pressure on them to accept refugees who are close to them?
  • Write to your Congressperson in support of the refugee program – to continue it and fund it.  Since 1975, the U.S. has resettled more than 3 million refugees, including 169,000 from Bosnia and more than 100,000 from Iraq.  The number of 10,000 from Syria is a small number in comparison.
  • Donate to aid agencies such as UNCHR.  They need money to deal with the crisis and the pledges of money that they were supposed to have received, have not come in.
  • Engage in the debate.  If nothing else, it should be discussed.  We should not blow it aside.

Geri Kahn is an attorney in California with offices in Solano and San Francisco counties.  She publishes the California Immigration Lawyer Blog.  Please go by and check her out!

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