The Obama administration will greatly increase the number of Syrian refugees approved for permanent resettlement in the United States next year but has opted against a separate refugee program to serve victims of that intractable civil war, administration officials said Tuesday.
The State Department is reviewing more than 4,000 applications from Syrian refugees seeking permanent homes in the United States next year or beyond, up from dozens considered for resettlement this year and last, officials said. The expansion reflects determinations by the United Nations refugee agency and the United States that tens of thousands of refugees living outside Syria are unlikely to ever be able to return.
The White House said Tuesday that it has approved permanent resettlement for up to 70,000 refugees worldwide next year, the same figure as for fiscal 2014.
Up to 33,000 could be resettled from the Middle East and South Asia, including Syria. Although there is no set target for Syrian refugees, they are expected to form a far larger percentage of the total than ever before.
The State Department has received more than 4,000 referrals in recent months and is processing them, a State Department official said. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for attribution, said “large numbers” of Syrian refugees will begin to arrive in 2015.
The administration rejected appeals from some refugee advocates to carve out a specific allotment for Syrian refugees, however. Such programs have benefited victims of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq and many other conflicts.
That decision was made before the Obama administration decided to begin military operations inside Syria in August, reversing more than three years of policy against any U.S. intervention in the civil war.
Next year, Syrians seeking resettlement in the United States will benefit from the closure of a dedicated program for refugees from Bhutan that has brought tens of thousands of refugees to America over several years.
Because all the nations of the Middle East and South Asia are lumped together for purposes of refugee consideration, elimination of special consideration for the Bhutanese gives other applicants from the same region a better shot.
More importantly, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has expanded the number of Syrians it screens for resettlement anywhere, including the United States.
The UNHCR has said it sees no sign that the Syrian civil war will end soon enough to make a difference for hundreds of thousands of refugees living outside the country and that many will never be able to go home.
The overwhelming majority of refugees resettled in the United States are first identified as candidates by the UNHCR. The United States then does its own review. The UNHCR hopes to identify 50,000 for resettlement somewhere next year, and another 50,000 in 2016.
A notice called a presidential determination released Tuesday, the last day of the fiscal 2014, does not mention Syria specifically.
But officials said it would result in thousands of Syrian resettlements after years of double- or triple-digit numbers.
Most Syrian refugees considered candidates for U.S. residency have been living in refugee camps or elsewhere outside Syria for a year or much longer.
Some have experience working alongside Americans that makes them vulnerable to persecution by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and others are members of particular vulnerable groups, such as single or widowed women or gays and lesbians.