The writer is president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee and was Britain’s foreign secretary from 2007 to 2010.
The brutal conflict in Syria, which has entered its fifth year, is a true horror. The death, destruction and displacement, now extended into Iraq, constitute the defining humanitarian crisis of this century so far. Yet it appears that the world has become desensitized to the mounting human misery.
U.N. appeals for humanitarian help are going increasingly underfunded. The U.N. special envoy to Syria has narrowed his goal to a temporary cease-fire in one city. The rules of war and norms of civilian protection have been torn to shreds.
In the face of a dismaying political stalemate on the big questions of war and peace, there is every reason to use one of the few tools to ease the suffering of Syrians that is wholly within the power of the West. It is well past time for the United States and other Western countries to commit to a dramatic boost in the resettlement of Syrian refugees.
Resettlement will not end the war, but it can rescue some of the most vulnerable victims of the fighting — the raped and tortured, at-risk women and children, those with acute medical needs.
So far, the bulk of the burden has fallen on Syria’s neighbors. Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq have taken in around 4 million refugees combined. Lebanon’s population alone has climbed by 25 percent. Imagine the equivalent impact of 80 million refugees fleeing to the United States. But Syria’s neighbors have reached their limits. Health clinics, schools and other infrastructure are badly strained. A backlash has started.
The United States has resettled 546 Syrian refugees over the past four years. Other Western countries haven’t done much better, though Germany has pledged to take 35,000 of the 130,000 whom the U.N. refugee agency has asked the international community to resettle before the end of 2016.
All told, the U.S. refugee resettlement program currently helps some 70,000 people a year from all parts of the world. The United States can take three essential steps to mobilize this program to help the most vulnerable Syrians.
First, in light of the dire situation in Syria, it can raise the 70,000 cap specifically to accommodate Syrian refugees over the next two years. By historical standards, the United States should be committing to take around 65,000 — or 50 percent — of those identified by the United Nations for resettlement by the end of 2016. Achieving that would require an increase in resources to allow for swifter processing by the Department of Homeland Security — including the more than 10,000 refugees waiting for a U.S. resettlement interview, as well as the 1,000 new applications being received from the United Nations each month.
Second, it can ensure that DHS issues needed guidance on “material support” waivers created in 2014, thus avoiding delays and denials to Syrians who have committed no wrongs. Absent such guidance, a Syrian merchant could be denied refugee status merely for having sold flour on market day to a militant fighting the Assad regime.
Third, Syrian Americans in places such as California, Michigan and Pennsylvania desperately want to help their family members and friends reach the United States; these long-established communities of doctors, social workers, teachers and small-business owners are ready to receive refugees. The United States can expand resettlement options by establishing, through the refugee program, a family reunification mechanism enabling Syrian Americans to bring extended family to safety more quickly.
The United States has long provided haven for refugees fleeing persecution, and that proud legacy should not be derailed by those who would play on fear. The United States has instituted an ever-more rigorous screening system for the tens of thousands of people who find refuge here every year. That system strikes an appropriate balance between securing the homeland and maintaining a commitment to freedom from persecution.
Every day, survivors of torture, women widowed by the Syrian conflict, children traumatized by war and others tell the International Rescue Committee and other nongovernmental organizations that they think the world has given up on them. The United States is in a position to help by swiftly expanding resettlement and encouraging other donor states to follow its example. The moral choice is clear. And so is the historical lesson.
In 1960, the International Rescue Committee won a commitment from President-elect John F. Kennedy to admit 10,000 Chinese refugees to the country — up from a token 105. Today, their descendants are part of the rich fabric of American society. Syrians whose lives have been shattered by war deserve the same chance.