Fighting continues to rage in the Syrian town of Kobani near the border with Turkey, as Kurdish fighters—with support from U.S. airstrikes—attempt to keep it from falling to ISIS. More than 180,000 Syrian refugees, primarily Kurds, have fled into Turkey. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that 80 percent are women and children, with 20 percent elderly or disabled.
While Turkey is continuing to accept thousands of refugees, it has reportedly closed seven of nine crossing points in the area. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that Jordan, which had been imposing severe restrictions on the entry of refugees from Syria since last spring, has now closed its border entirely, while other reports indicate that Lebanon, which until recently had kept its borders open in the face of enormous challenges, has also closed or severely restricted the ability of refugees to enter—and has done so with the blessing of the international community.
Turkey is pushing the United States and its allies to create a safe haven for refugees inside Syria, Reuters reported last week. Historically, the international community has done a poor job of protecting established safe zones for civilians fleeing armed conflict, most notably in its failure to prevent the Srebrenica massacre in which 8,000 Bosnians in a U.N. protected area were slaughtered in July 1995.
In any case, states—including Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey—are required under international law to allow refugees fleeing persecution to cross their borders. The United States should be strongly pressing for continued access to international protection and respect for the fundamental international law prohibition against refoulement. Any proposals to protect civilians inside Syria must also respect these essential rights.
Certainly the international community must do more to help frontline states like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. These states are hosting the vast majority of the nearly 3 million refugees who have fled from Syria already. While the United States has provided significant aid, the UN appeal for the Syria crisis is still significantly underfunded, with only about 50 percent met. And beyond financial assistance, the international community—including the United States—must step up efforts to share in hosting more of Syria’s refugees.
A piece published in The Guardian this week asks if the United States could be doing more to help resettle Syrian refugees. The answer is a resounding YES, as I wrote in an op-ed published in The Guardian earlier this year.
This fiscal year, since October 2013, the United States has resettled only 105 Syrian refugees. The Washington Post reported last week that the Unites States was assessing 4000 Syrian cases for potential resettlement, and was planning an expanded resettlement initiative next year. The annual report of the President to Congress on proposed refugee admissions, released last week, calls the Syria refugee crisis “the worst the world has witnessed in a generation” and indicates that the number of Syrians resettled is expected to “rise dramatically in the second half of the year, including individuals with close family ties in the U.S.” The report does not however identify a U.S. commitment to resettle any particular number of refugees. It states that is anticipates “the launch of a significant processing of Syrians during FY 2015” and says the United States will “play a significant role” in the global resettlement initiative. Globally, UNHCR announced its intention to refer 30,000 Syrian refugees for resettlement to various nations in calendar year 2014, and 50,000 more in both 2015 and 2016. Resettlement needs have clearly increased since that assessment.
As Human Rights First detailed in a comprehensive report late last year, in addition to the moral imperative, it is in the clear strategic interest of the U.S. government to lead a strong international effort to resettle and protect Syrian refugees. Destabilization of the region, which includes countries closely allied with the United States, would deal a blow to American foreign policy priorities. A strong effort to help resettle Syrian refugees would help bolster American credibility and influence in a region where perceptions of the United States are often negative. And by standing up for Syria’s refugees, the United States can send a strong message that respecting human rights is central to upholding security as well as saving lives.
The United States, as the global leader in refugee resettlement, must lead this effort and encourage other states to launch or increase their resettlement initiatives as well. As the United States moves ahead with its resettlement of Syrian refugees, Human Rights First urges it to:
- Focus on resettling the most vulnerable refugees, including those unable to access life-saving and specialized services for survivors of torture and sexual violence in the countries to which they have fled
- Continue to monitor and support the capacity of the U.N. Refugee Agency and its partners to identify the most vulnerable and at risk Syrian refugees who should be considered for resettlement
- Allocate staffing necessary, including for intelligence agencies, to provide timely and effective security background checks so that resettlement processing for vulnerable individuals is not unnecessarily delayed
- Prioritize inter-agency coordination and attention to quickly implement the inadmissibility exemptions and other tools necessary so that the United States does not deny protection to refugees who have stood up to, or been persecuted by, Syria’s repressive regime yet face potential bars to protection under U.S. immigration law even though they do not support terrorist activity and present no risk, and move ahead with additional exemptions tailored to protect legitimate refugees unjustly affected by these provisions
- Champion access to cross borders to secure international protection, consistent with fundamental tenets of international human rights and refugee law.
Given the acute needs, and the impact of this refugee crisis on Syria’s neighbors, addressing the refugee crisis—and safeguarding access to international protection— should be a top priority for U.S. policymakers.