BERLIN— The United States will increase its cap on the number of refugees it admits and resettles to 85,000 in the coming fiscal year and to 100,000 in 2017, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Sunday.
The additional refugees, up from 70,000 in the current fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, will come from countries around the world. But the increase largely reflects the 10,000 Syrian refugees that the White House earlier this month promised to admit. Kerry said the administration is exploring ways to admit even more, but Congress must approve enough money to cover the extra cost of resettlement.
“This step is in keeping with America’s best tradition as a land of second chances and a beacon of hope,” Kerry said in announcing the increase during a visit to Berlin to discuss the Syrian refugee crisis with his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Even before Syrian refugees began streaming into Europe in recent weeks, the State Department had been considering a modest increase of about 5,000 refugees, including more from Congo, where human rights abuses are rampant. At the end of each fiscal year, the State Department announces the new target number for refugees.
Although the administration can unilaterally set a numerical goal for the refugees it wants to accept, it is up to Congress to agree to fund the resettlement. In the current fiscal year, it cost $1.1 billion to bring 70,000 refugees to the United States, put them through an orientation program run by refugee charities and have them dispersed throughout the country. It was not immediately clear how much more it will cost to bring in more Syrians.
One of the reasons it is so expensive is that every refugee must undergo extensive background checks under security measures enacted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Those checks have been taking 18 to 24 months for Syrians, according to State Department figures. A senior State Department official said “many, many more” refugees could be admitted if officials can find ways to streamline the system without jeopardizing security.
Refugees admitted for resettlement are selected from lists provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. So far, about 1,600 of more than 18,000 Syrians referred by the U.N. refugee agency since the conflict began have arrived in the United States — about 1,500 in this fiscal year alone. More than 10,000 are well along in being vetted, and they are expected to arrive in much greater numbers in the coming months.
The goals announced by Kerry are still far short of the 100,000 or more Syrian refugees that some members of Congress and humanitarian agencies have urged the administration to admit, on top of the 70,000 refugees admitted from other countries this year.
“We want to take more,” Kerry said. “We understand the responsibility. We’d like to. But taking folks out of Syria, post 9/11, requires a very specific vetting process. We can target it. But we don't have the money allocated by Congress to hire people necessary to do the job. We’re doing what we know we can manage immediately.”
The United States has spent $4.1 billion over the past four years providing humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees. But humanitarian agencies assisting them have had difficulty raising money to fund their work. The United Nations, for example, has received only 40 percent of what it needs to provide humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. The shrinking resources to help growing numbers of people has helped propel the large flow of refugees into an overwhelmed eastern and central Europe.
Kerry and Steinmeier met privately for almost an hour with about a dozen Syrian refugees. Most were in the educated middle class — university instructors, journalists, publishers and statisticians among them.
“I came here in search of a future,” said one woman in her 30s, who said she arrived in Germany with one daughter and who left two more daughters in Syria with their grandparents until she can establish herself.
Several of them beseeched the United States to do more to find a political solution and to oust Islamic State militants. When one man was asked what prompted him to leave Syria after he had endured almost five years of war, he replied with a challenge: “I’d ask another way,” he said. “Are five years not enough for the West to intervene, and especially the USA?”
The refugee crisis engulfing Europe has caused Kerry to renew his calls for negotiations that would ease Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of office and would establish a transitional government. On Friday, Kerry said the United States was prepared to resume negotiations and had implored Russia to persuade Assad to join transition talks.
“It would be delusional to believe that President Assad can ever unite or govern a peaceful Syria,” Kerry said Sunday.
Assad has the support of Russia and Iran, and Kerry on Sunday warned that their backing is prolonging the conflict. He said that he and Steinmeier had agreed that “continued military support for the regime by Russia — or by any other country — risks exacerbating the conflict and only hinders future cooperation toward a successful transition.”