U.S. Should Listen to Angelina Jolie and Resettle More Syrian Refugees

By Eleanor Acer
Following the deaths of hundreds of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea this month, UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie Pitt called on the international community to provide refugees with “legal avenues to safety.” Speaking to the U.N. Security Council on Friday, she said:

“It is sickening to see thousands of refugees drowning on the doorstep of the world’s wealthiest continent. No one risks the lives of their children in this way except out of utter desperation. If we cannot end the conflict, we have an inescapable moral duty to help refugees and provide legal avenues to safety.”

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, about 12 million people—half of Syria’s population—have been forced to flee their homes, often more than once. Nearly four million have escaped to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt. But Syria’s neighbors are closing their borders, leaving many people trapped.

With the exception of Germany and Sweden, most western countries have largely failed to share in the responsibility of hosting Syrian refugees. The United States—long the global resettlement leader—has only resettled 800 Syrians since the start of the conflict over four years ago.

While much has been said about what Europe should do to address the plight of Syrians and others crossing the Mediterranean, the United States should not view the lack of “avenues to safety” for refugees as simply a European challenge.

In a letter to President Obama last week, a bipartisan group of Senators expressed concern that U.S. resettlement of Syrian refugees has “gone slowly here at home.” The letter, which focused on proposed humanitarian “safe zones,” was signed by Senators Richard J. Durbin, Lindsey Graham, Tim Kaine, and John McCain. As Newsweek reported, the Senators told President Obama that they were “disappointed” that the United States had settled such a small number of Syrian refugees.

The United States can, and should, do a lot more. It should start by leading a comprehensive initiative to resettle Syrian refugees and better support frontline states. The United States should commit to resettling at least 65,000 Syrians by the end of 2016 and more over the following years, depending on evolving needs. To facilitate this, the Department of Homeland Security should issue long overdue guidance to allow case-by-case review of refugee applications delayed by overly broad immigration inadmissibility provisions that inadvertently impact many refugee cases.

The U.S. government should also champion protection at borders by making it clear that it expects Syria’s neighbors to admit refugees, and by pledging to fully support these states through aid and resettlement. Syrian refugees should not be blocked from crossing borders or returned to persecution, including due to any creation of “safe zones.” Though already the leading humanitarian donor, the United States should work with other states to significantly increase humanitarian assistance, development assistance for refugee-hosting communities and bilateral aid for infrastructure challenges facing frontline states.

Such a comprehensive approach would help safeguard the stability of key states bordering Syria and serve U.S. strategic interests. Leading by example, the United States would be in a position to press European and other states to significantly step up their resettlement commitments, providing real “avenues to safety” as Jolie Pitt urged.

The United States, with the bipartisan support of Congress, should lead in addressing what the Senators rightly called the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis in recent times.”

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Published on April 29, 2015

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