A Death in Limbo: How one refugee family’s loss demonstrates the toll of resettlement backlogs

This blog is cross-posted from the Huffington Post:

Sometimes it only takes the suffering of one to drive home the pain of thousands. Last week I woke up to the story of Mohammed Hassan (a pseudonym), a one year-old boy, a refugee, who died due to heart complications in a refugee camp in Jordan. He and his family were waiting in the pipeline to be resettled in the United States—where lifesaving medical treatments may have made a difference for Mohammed and his family.

Earlier this year, I traveled to Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey to witness the refugee crisis firsthand. I learned how bottlenecks, backlogs, and delays in the U.S. resettlement process were affecting refugees and front-line refugee hosting states. And I heard how families like the Hassans have been losing hope as they wait, and wait, for the U.S. resettlement process to move forward. Some families, after struggling to survive for years in exile, gave up waiting and decided to embark on dangerous trips to Europe to try to secure protection.

For refugees facing imminent risks or health crises, the delays and backlogs that plague the already slow U.S. resettlement process can lead to tragedy. The lack of sufficient U.S. capacity to address emergency cases like Mohammed’s leaves these refugees facing grave risks.

Last September, Secretary of State John Kerry committed the United States to accepting “at least” 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year. This number falls far short of U.S. capacity to resettle, its responsibilities to both the vulnerable refugees in need of protection, and our overwhelmed partners hosting them. It also does not reflect strong leadership, particularly from a country that has historically led on refugee resettlement. But nearly halfway through the fiscal year, the U.S. government has not even reached 10 percent of this modest goal.

Real lives are on the line—lives like Mohammed’s.

Backlogs and bottlenecks in the refugee resettlement program undermine the United States’ ability to not only meet its humanitarian commitments, but also undermine U.S. national security and foreign policy objectives. Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey are hosting the vast majority of the 4.8 million Syrian refugees that have fled their country.  These large numbers are straining key infrastructures of these countries, and resettlement and aid are both necessary for supporting the stability of these states and, in turn, the region more broadly.

Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and several other countries, writes: “A bold initiative—one that includes significant increases in resettlement and aid—will advance U.S. national security by alleviating the strains on refugee-hosting states and safeguarding the stability of a region that is home to key U.S. allies.” Furthermore, “Addressing backlogs would not undermine security; in fact it would strengthen the effectiveness of U.S. processing.”

Crocker speaks from experience under both Democratic and Republican administrations, and details his perspective in the foreword to Human Rights First’s report, “The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Need for U.S. Leadership.”

Unfortunately, some members of Congress have reacted to the recent terror attacks in Western countries with fear and moves to block refugee resettlement. The most recent, proposed by Representatives Labrador and Goodlatte in the House, was approved at the committee level this month.

But such efforts are misguided and national security experts point out that they actually fuel the ISIS narrative. Refugees are the most thoroughly vettedpopulation to enter the United States. And as Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of Homeland Security under George W. Bush, told the Wall Street Journal, resettling Syrian refugees “allows us to truthfully say that we’re not hypocrites or bigoted against Muslims or people from other cultures…. You don’t want to play into the narrative of the bad guy. That’s giving propaganda to the enemy.”

The United States can clear the backlogs and bottlenecks besetting the refugee resettlement program without compromising security by devoting more resources and staff to the process. Meeting the administration’s goal to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees this year is the bare minimum the U.S. government should do. Failing to meet even this modest goal would be an embarrassment—and counterproductive from a national security perspective.

We can’t know for sure whether Mohammed Hassan would have survived if he made it to the United States for surgery. But we do know his death is a tragedy no family should have to endure. Many more families like his face uncertainty and dangers while waiting to be resettled. Many of them could be spared from suffering if the United States meets its objectives and leads a more robust resettlement initiative in the future.



  • Eleanor Acer

Published on March 28, 2016


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