U.S. Must Protect Refugees Fleeing Syria

As violence continues to rock Syria’s major cities, the number of people fleeing the conflict is rising, and many are crossing into the bordering countries. The most recent UN figures show 43,387 registered refugees in Turkey, 36,824 in Jordan, and 31,596 in Lebanon but the number of Syrians not registered with UNHCR in Jordan is estimated to be far higher. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that an additional 24,000 Syrians have recently entered Lebanon. Iraq also plays host to 8,445 Syrians. It is essential that these countries provide assistance to those fleeing the violence in accordance with international humanitarian standards. Turkey has provided nine shelter sites as well as food and other assistance while Jordan has established an emergency camp. There are also, however, disturbing news and human rights reports of Jordan turning away refugees, and recently the Israeli Defense Minister told reporters that if large number of Syrians attempted to seek refuge in Israel, “we will stop them.” Iraq reportedly opened its borders to Syrians only last week and has detained some, prompting protests among Iraqis insideIraq. The United States has provided financial assistance to the humanitarian community as well as direct support to Jordan, in part to help with the government’s response to the Syrian crisis but the UN has indicated the urgent need for more funding. The United States and other states should continue to generously support assistance for refugees and displaced persons fleeing the violence in Syria as well as encourage and support Syria’s neighbors to protect those fleeing persecution and violence. Also caught up in the violence are Iraqi refugees, tens of thousands of whom have been living in Syriafor a number of years. The UN has estimated that 10,000 Iraqi refugees have fled Syria in the past week and the UN Refugee Agency has received numerous calls on its hotline from Iraqi refugees reporting threats and fears of being caught up in the fighting. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has expressed concern for the safety of Syria’s civilians as well as Iraqi refugees after he received reports of a family of seven Iraqis killed in their apartment in Damascus. Around 88,000 Iraqi refugees are registered in Syria, the majority in Damascus. Many are highly vulnerable refugee families, religious minorities, and some who had been targeted for persecution in Iraq due to their work with the U.S. military or government, or with U.S. non-governmental organizations or media and have been awaiting resettlement to the United States. In our December 2010 report Living in Limbo: Iraqi Refugees and U.S. Resettlement, we documented the difficulties and dangers facing Iraqis who are left stranded while awaitingU.S. resettlement. Those dangers have now multiplied sharply, requiring prompt protection-oriented solutions. The United States and the UN Refugee Agency should take additional steps to protect Iraqi refugees who have been waiting for resettlement in Syria – including those who may be forced to return to Iraq despite the continuing risk of persecution there. At present thousands of Iraqi refugees with active resettlement applications remain at risk inSyria. Their resettlement applications should be processed as quickly as possible, and they should be allowed to easily enterJordanor other neighboring countries where there is resettlement processing capacity and continue with their resettlement applications from there. Refugees who face a high risk of violence should be evacuated to an Emergency Transit Center (ETC) in either Romania or Slovakia. These ETCs provide safe shelter for up to 350 residents while they wait for their applications for resettlement to the United Statesand other countries to be completed. As a result, it is important that ETC residents’ resettlement applications are expedited and that the ETCs are used efficiently in order to create space for other at-risk refugees. For example, some Iraqis already in need of expedited resettlement as detailed in our report are now facing even more serious risks due to the violence in Syria and need to be evacuated. The United States and the UN Refugee Agency should also support efforts to expedite protection and resettlement of any Syrian refugees who face imminent risks of harm, including from the Syrian government, or deportation back to persecution in a neighboring country. In addition to providing life-saving humanitarian aid and calling onSyria’s neighbors to keep their borders open to all refugees fleeing the violence – an essential obligation under international law – theU.S.government should:

  • Work with the UN Refugee Agency andSyria’s neighbors to enable Iraqi refugees inSyriawith active resettlement applications to cross easily into neighboring countries to have their applications rapidly processed so that they can be resettled to safety
  • Continue to evacuate vulnerable and at-risk Iraqi refugees in the resettlement process to Emergency Transit Centers and expedite the processing of their resettlement applications so that additional refugees at risk can be evacuated to safety
  • Continue to strengthen U.S. capacity to expedite resettlement processing by providing expedite specialist staff to the Resettlement Support Centers in the region, increasing capacity to expedite background security clearances, and conducting rapid USCIS interviews.

Published on July 31, 2012


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