US Must do More to Help Syrian Refugees

This piece was first published in The Guardian on 9.4.15.

The image of the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, face down in the sand, has shaken the world from its collective stupor and exposed the tragically underwhelming efforts of the US administration, among others, in response to “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era”.

What does this emergency look like? Half of Syria’s population has been displaced since the popular protests began in March 2011. To put that in perspective, this equates to 160 million Americans fleeing their homes. More than 4 million Syrians are languishing in refugee camps and host communities in neighboring countries, such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. As noted in a UN report earlier this year, “Syria has become a country of poor people, with an estimated 4 in every 5 Syrians now living in poverty.” Furthermore, with the collapse of the healthcare system and daily violence targeting civilians, the life expectancy has shrunk from 76 to 56 years old.

Syrians are in a desperate state, fleeing from the mass-murdering regime of Bashar al-Assad and more recently from the horrid violence of Isis. These are not simply “migrants” looking for economic prosperity. These are refugees. Somali-British writer Warsan Shire said it best in describing why so many take such unthinkable risks: “you have to understand that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” This summer alone, over 2,500 have drowned and bodies like that of little Aylan are increasingly washing up on beaches of the eastern Mediterranean.


What has been the US response to this catastrophe? A disingenuous and deficient approach, to say the least. Our nation of immigrants must do more to help mitigate the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time.

Similar to the Obama administration’s political miscalculations on Syria – from crossed red lines to an ill-conceived train-and-equip program – the US administration maintains the same ‘hands-off’ approach for Syrian refugees that has so distinctly marked Obama’s “Syria doctrine”:

While the US and European Union are collectively the largest donors of humanitarian aid to Syria, providing about $4bn and $4.3bn respectively from 2012-2015, the contribution is still less than the $8.4bn the UN requested for 2015 alone.

And to day, only about 1,500 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the US (most in the past year) through an unintelligible and inaccessible selection process. Especially mind boggling is that the US has determined a 2015 quota of 70,000 refugees and yet, Syrians, now the largest refugee population in the world are minimally represented.

The State Department recently announced that it expects to resettle between 5,000-8,000 Syrian refugees in 2016, still pathetically inadequate compared both to the scale of the disaster and to European nations evolving their policies to address the ever-growing catastrophe. Germany just announced an expectation to take 800,000 refugees, putting to shame US plans for 2016.

On Thursday, a letter signed by at least 14 Senators called for the US government to allow upwards of 65,000 Syrians in the coming year. Countering Islamophobic currents and fear mongering within American political discourse, this new initiative is well overdue and aligns with the recommendations of major resettlement NGOs and experts. As the proclaimed world leader in refugee resettlement, there is no justifiable political calculation in continuing to ignore this crisis.

This means Americans need to start having broader, more public discussion about just who is to blame for Syria’s collapse – al-Assad’s government. Estimates show upwards of 85-90% of civilian deaths are committed by the regime. In late 2012-2013, rape by regime forces was reported as the primary reason refugees fled to Jordan and Lebanon. Since then, indiscriminate aerial bombardment and the use of barrel bombs killing and maiming tens of thousands have become the greatest threat to Syrians. Isis garners more media attention but represents a smaller – though still significant – percentage of the killing; in August, Isis murders were 8% of the Syrian death toll.

Until the main perpetrators of violence are confronted and removed, we will continue to see images of dead Syrian children – drowned at sea, or blown up in places like Aleppo, Douma, Zabadani and all across Syria.

In the words of Aylan’s grieving father, “We want the world’s attention on us, so that they can prevent the same from happening to others. Let this be the last.” European nations are starting to step up, albeit reluctantly, to address the Syrian catastrophe. It is time America does the same.

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