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The politics of the Syrian refugee crisis, explained

A Syrian refugee woman sits with her son outside her tent during a sandstorm in a refugee camp in the town of Bar Elias, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

The Syrian refugee crisis is big, big news around the world. And on Thursday, it became a reality in the United States, as the White House announced a decision to accept up to 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next fiscal year.

As the White House acts, precisely what should be done for Syria's refugees has also become an issue on the 2016 campaign trail, with Democratic White House contenders Hillary Clinton and former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley as well as Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) saying this week that the United States should accept many more Syrian refugees, CBS News reported.

Also on the GOP side, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Carly Fiorina urged various types of caution but seemed to essentially agree. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) and (as of Thursday) Donald Trump described the situation as a European matter or one that Europe can handle. And both New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) offered answers that were either unclear or noncommittal.

So what have the at least 9 million Syrians in need of safe shelter got to do with us?

First a little context

Syria's refugees are part of the roughly 10.5 million people worldwide forced to flee their homes as a result of conditions in their home country. It's also particularly important to note that each year, children comprise a a large share -- 46 percent in 2012 -- of the world's refugee population.

So while images of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian Kurd who drowned off the Turkish coast while attempting to flee with his Syrian family, have gripped the world, there are quite literally millions of children caught in similarly difficult circumstances.

[A desperate refugee family. A capsized boat and a 3-year-old boy dead on a beach in Turkey]

Since armed conflict between the government and various opposition factions began in Syria in 2011, an estimated 9 million Syrians have streamed out of their homes, according to the State Department. About 6.5 million of these individuals still live somewhere inside of Syria, and at least 2.5 million people have left. Most have either entered another country or been caught attempting to do so and placed in temporary refugee housing -- often little more than a tent city.

Refugees who manage to get that far typically register with the United Nations and apply for permanent resettlement. After a wait of what is ideally up to 24 months but sometimes far longer, refugees receive an invitation to resettle in a third country. Once there, they become what are essentially invited guests, eligible for work visas and legal employment likely for the first time since leaving their home country.

The willingness of every country around the world to permanently accept and assist refugees can help to reduce the number of people living in conditions unfit for human beings. It also limits the share who feel compelled to perform illegal work, those who are vulnerable to all manner of exploitation, and those who can be tempted to undertake perilous and sometimes-deadly unauthorized border crossings.

But many states in the Persian Gulf region have yet to offer to permanently resettle any Syrian refugees. By contrast, the U.S. admits and permanently resettles more refugees than any other country in the world each year, including more than 67,000 last year.

So how many Syrian refugees has the United States admitted? 

The short answer is not many.

So far this fiscal year, 1,393 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the United States, according to State Department data. The United States plans to admit, "several hundred more" [Syrian] refugees before the end of this month, for a total of 1,500-1,800 individuals this fiscal year, the State Department told The Fix on Wednesday.

And then up to 10,000 more in the next fiscal year.

Here's what we know about previous years: Refugee resettlement data, like many other federal measures, is recorded for each fiscal year -- the period between Oct. 1 and Sept. 30. In fiscal year 2012, during which the conflict in Syria was well underway, the United States admitted 31 Syrian refugees. That was followed by a slight uptick to 36 in fiscal year 2013, and a jump to 105 Syrian refugees in 2014. In fiscal year 2015 (which as we noted is still ongoing): 1,393.

Here's a map depicting the areas of the United States in which these individuals were settled.

So, why haven't we done more? And should we?

The size and scope of the Syrian refugee crisis has prompted countries around the world to debate and in some cases boost the number of refugees they will take in, often many times over. On Thursday, President Obama announced that the United States would join countries such as Germany (where officials have discussed accepting up to 800,000), the United Kingdom and France (which have each agreed to accept at least 20,000 Syrians) and others in doing just that.

The American commitment announced Thursday is not even close to what Germany is considering, or the 65,000 number that one prominent international aid group has pressed the United States to accept. But it's certainly a big jump from recent years.

And the United States does have other commitments to refugees from other countries. Here's a quick look at how many refugees (from around the world) the United States has promised to consider and how many it has accepted in recent years. That first figure is developed annually by the president and Congress. The later depends heavily on the rate at which federal officials can screen refugees seeking permanent resettlement to assure that people who pose a security or health threat to the United States are not admitted.

People can and will debate the obligation of human beings to assist one another when in crisis. But the costs and impact on local communities also rank among the issues that governments must consider.

In the United States, refugees are also eligible for public assistance and health care for a limited period of time and can seek permanent residency and citizenship over the course of several years. At the same time, refugees typically arrive with little-to-absolutely-no money and almost nothing in the way of personal belongings. Some must give up prominent positions and highly paid careers in their home countries because their credentials aren't considered valid in the new country. Others must adapt to living in an apartment with electricity and running water for the first time.

[No, cellphones are not a luxury for Syrian refugees]

Still, lest anyone think that refugees welcomed to the United States enjoy a life of luxury, consider reading the disclaimer about life in the United States posted on the State Department Web site for refugee applicants.