U.S. Urged to 'Do More' for Displaced Syrians; 10K Refugees in FY 2016 'Just Not Enough'

By Susan Jones | October 20, 2015 | 10:04am EDT
People fleeing Syria and other Middle Eastern and African countries are escorted by police after crossing from Croatia into Slovenia on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015. Slovenia accused Croatia on Tuesday of sending thousands of migrants toward its borders "without control," ignoring requests to contain the surge, and urged the rest of the European Union to get involved in solving the crisis. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

(CNSNews.com) - Of the world's 16 million refugees, 4.1 million have emerged from the Syrian conflict alone, a United Nations refugee resettlement officer told a gathering at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington on Monday.

And as Europe deals with a refugee crisis of historic proportions, "We'd certainly like U.S. to do more," said Larry Yunck.

For the fiscal year beginning in October, the United States has promised to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees. That number is "woefully inadequate," Brittney Nystrom of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Center told the gathering.

She noted that 1,900 Syrians have come to the U.S. in the four years since the fighting began in that country: "So given the huge numbers that were mentioned, 4.1 million Syrians worldwide, we really have not opened the doors in the U.S. yet" to Syrian refugees."

If the United States were to accept a burden equivalent to what Lebanon is experiencing, for example, we would have to accept 100,000,000 refugees, Nystrom noted. "So a reasonable exercise in burden-sharing would suggest that 10,000 Syrians in the year for the United States is just not enough."

Nystrom noted United States is "very proud" of the role it plays in humanitarian relief, and for years, it has welcomed more refugees worldwide than any other nation.

"And to do our part, we would need to resettle many, many more Syrians. The agencies like mine that resettle refugees are calling on the United States to resettle 100,000 Syrians this year. We think that is a much more responsible number when it comes to foreign policy concerns, when it comes to humanitarian assistance.

"Let's keep the process secure, but let's also really step up and do our part to welcome this highly traumatized population into our communities."

'Political Will'

Nystrom blamed a lack of "political will" for the "disconnect" in America's long tradition of welcoming refugees, but not the Syrians.

"After the wars in Southeast Asia, the U.S. resettled 111,000 Vietnamese in 1979. We doubled that number to about over 200,000 Vietnamese refugees in 1980. So we can do this as a country; we can resettle a large number of refugees safely," she said.

"We're not seeing the same level of political will when it comes to the Syrian refugees. We wouldn't be talking about 10,000 if we really were responding on a par with how we responded to the Vietnamese situation."

Kelly Gauger, the deputy director of refugee admissions for the State Department, said the U.S. refugee resettlement program is much larger than that of other countries, and she noted that the focus on Syrians is "just ramping up."

"We are not the fastest program in the world. It's a large ship that takes a long time to turn," she explained.

Gauger noted that the U.S. accepted nearly 70,000 refugees last year from all corners of the world, most of them referred for refugee status by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

It takes between 18 and 24 months from the point of referral for the U.S. to do background checks and other vetting and then bring the refugees to this country. Gauger said at this point, the U.S has received almost 22,000 referrals of Syrians from the UNHCR:

"So we're in the process of vetting those and getting them ready for DHS (Department of Homeland Security) interviews...and I think we'll be able to get to 10,000, but the notion that we can get to 100,000 refugees" in FY 2016 just isn't possible, since the UNHCR hasn't even made that many referrals.

More money

"The other thing we have to acknowlege is there are budget realities out here," Gauger added. "There has to be political will, not just on the part of the administration, but on the Congress to fund resettlement programs," she said.

"The U.S. refugee resettlement program is an extremely expensive endeavor. My bureau, the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration at the State Department, spent about $400 million last year admitting 70,000 refugees. We're going to need even more in FY '16 to bring in 85,000 (including the 10,000 Syrians).

"We, at least in the State Department, we have a limited amount of money to fund both resettlement and humanitarian assistance. So the more refugees we resettle, the less money we have for humanitarian assistance, which can affect a far greater number of peole in the region."

She said it's one thing for refugee advocates such as Nystrom to be calling for 100,000 Syrians to come here in FY 2016, but "we need significantly more money than we're getting now, and I'm not sure that many of us have confidence that we're going to get that money from this Congress."

Nystrom said she didn't want to leave the audience with the perception that refugees are "just sucking up resources."

"That's not the case," she said. "Most of the refugees that we help resettle become self-suffienct very, very quickly...

"And we know that communities are made richer who resettle refugees," Nystrom added. "They gain in resources from refugees who open businesses, who contribute to the economy of their community -- and the amount of time that refugees are eligible for public assistance is very limited.

"There's an 8-month window where a refugee receives cash assistance. After that period of time, they're expected to become completely self-sufficient. So there is an outlay of resources at the beginning of the resettlememt process, but the country as a whole benefits from resettling refugees."

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