The Global Struggle to Accommodate Displaced Persons: Options for U.S. Policy Towards the Syrian Refugee Crisis
In 2011, a civil war broke out in Syria displacing an estimated 11 million people from their homes. The war led to one of the largest humanitarian crises of the century. As a result, six million people have dispersed inside Syria, and another 4.8 million are seeking solace in neighboring states such as Turkey and Jordan. Further effects on the international community include: the rise of extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and a change in the United States’ relationship with Russia and China. As a superpower, to help reduce the number of refugees worldwide, the United States must continue to mitigate the effects of the crisis under President Donald Trump. One option is to expand the country’s current “open door” policy. Another option is to implement changes to the current resettlement program. A third option is to increase the aid given to the countries that are hosting the majority of refugees. The preferred method is to reform the current resettlement program.
When the Arab Spring uprisings began, President Bashar al-Assad responded by sending tanks into cities and using regime forces against civilians. Yet, the UN Security Council has since failed to reach a successful diplomatic solution; fighting has escalated, the death toll has risen, and human rights violations such as chemical weapons attacks, torture, and barrel bombing of civilian areas have continued to occur. The war has caused mass displacement. There are over 8 million refugees in Syria, 1 million in Lebanon, over 245,000 in Iraq, and 2 million in Turkey. While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has provided medical supplies and food, the United States’ focus has been using military airstrikes against ISIS targets. Since the election of President Trump, the U.S. has increased military intervention. With the death toll unknown, the Syrian Civil War shows no definite signs of ending, and the continuation of the conflict will likely result in a greater number of refugees worldwide, prompting action from the international community.
“Open Door” Policy
One approach to mitigating the Syrian refugee crisis is to revitalize the United States’ commitment to accepting refugees with an open door policy. Essentially, this means the U.S. will greatly increase the number of refugees they accept annually. Such a policy has a plethora of benefits, including economic growth and urban revitalization. According to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the Turkish economy will expand by 3.5% in 2017-2018 despite spending nearly 5.37 billion euros funding 2 million refugees. While there were expenses, the costs to the stable country proved to be more social and political than economic. If the United States were to take in a fraction of the refugees that Turkey has, the economy would prosper at an even greater level. It is also important to note that an influx of refugees helps to revitalize urban cities that are facing early signs of deindustrialization. While the primary concern is that refugees steal American jobs, in many cases, refugees often take the jobs that Americans don’t want, and can transform “desolate areas into thriving neighborhoods” by increasing the population, expanding the tax base by setting up their own businesses, and providing more customers for domestic companies.
Yet there are several problems with this policy. First, an increase in the number of Syrian refugees in the country does not seem plausible amid the current political climate. As Europe takes in more refugees, violent attacks occur within the European Union (EU). Ever since the September 2001 attacks, the public has viewed refugees through a terrorist lens. After the 2015 attack in Paris, 53% of Americans said the U.S. should stop accepting refugees, which differs when compared to the 75% that supported Obama’s refugee efforts earlier that year. The coverage of the European attacks has caused increased feelings of fear and hostility among the public, who are seeing the risks that go with the acceptance of undocumented refugees in the EU.
On the international level, this policy seems unlikely as the United States is not lawfully obligated to take action. According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, states are only told what not to do with refugees, which is to return them to their native country. International law also proclaims that the first country a refugee reaches is responsible for hosting them, and is usually where they will reside. Legally, the U.S. is not required to act beyond accepting those who make it to the border. However, as a global superpower, the U.S. faces international backlash and shaming if they don’t take action. While an “open door” policy seems like a simple answer, accepting more refugees only decreases the number abroad, and does not provide a solution for solving the refugee crisis in its entirety.
Reform the Resettlement Program
Implementing changes to the United States’ current resettlement program furthers the open door policy while remaining both feasible and practical. While a thorough process is necessary to weed out threats, the current vetting process is extensive and arduous. As of now, refugees must wait 18-24 months for acceptance into the country. Refugees must go through comprehensive interviews and security checks by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and nine nonprofits before being granted asylum. To speed up the adjudication process, the government should perform background investigations with more force and resources. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) interviews applicants abroad to see if they are eligible for resettlement. Placing more USCIS groups on the ground has proven beneficial thus far; for example, in Maryland and Virginia, over 2,400 Syrian refugees arrived in 2016 due to upgrades in processing facilities and an increase in DHS teams in Jordan and Turkey. As Syrian background checks can take up to three years, the more applicants interviewed, the greater chance they have in moving on in the process. The government must also expand the USCIS’s reunification program to allow Syrian-Americans to bring extended family into the country. The USCIS grants refugees the ability to petition for relatives to stay with them, but it’s limited to their spouse or children. By making petitions available for extended family, such as grandparents or cousins, the number of refugees abroad will decrease, giving DHS teams the chance to quickly send certain refugees to the process’ security screening step.
Making changes to quicken the resettlement process has numerous benefits. For one, it reduces the death toll by immediately taking in the most vulnerable victims of the Syrian war. Those individuals are usually women, children, and the injured. Improving the program also holds symbolic importance by demonstrating solidarity among the United States and other countries within the international community. Simply increasing the number of accepted refugees can alleviate the pressure that refugee-heavy states feel and could convince alternative states to take in refugees themselves. By reforming the system to increase admission, the United States is also affirming their support for refugees and human rights, which improves their standing and reputation among other states in the international system.
Nonetheless, there are several obstacles with this policy. First, given the current hostile climate of the American public, it is unlikely that Congress will increase refugee admissions. Furthermore, the U.S.’s lack of action could prompt international shaming, and can undermine other countries’ efforts to provide asylum. While the U.S. has pulled its weight before when they took in over 700,000 refugees post-Vietnam War, their indecisiveness over Syrian refugees shows state selectivity and a lack of continuity when it comes to assisting in humanitarian crises. Overall, while making changes to the resettlement program lessens the number of displaced persons abroad, it doesn’t serve as a concrete solution to the Syrian war itself.
Increase Aid Abroad
Rather than accepting more refugees or reforming the resettlement program, the United States should provide more aid to the countries that are hosting the highest number of refugees. During the war, close to four million refugees were resettled in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, with more than 1.3 million in Europe. The war has spilled beyond Syria’s borders, which undermines the security in the volatile region, allowing for extremist groups like ISIS to gain power and traction. Due to its severity, many refugees are living with little food, water or shelter. If the hostile environment in the U.S. continues, the country’s objective should shift to ensuring that refugee-heavy countries have the resources to effectively provide for them. To help one such country, the U.S. sent $1 billion to Jordan to help provide military and economic aid. Internationally, multiple donors have contributed $14.6 billion in aid over the past four years, with the United States providing $4.5 billion. Much of the U.S.’s assistance comes in the form of non-governmental organizations relief efforts like UNICEF and the UNHCR, to which the U.S. donated over $1.4 billion. By providing more aid towards asylum countries, the U.S. is furthering efforts that work on crucial issues of displacement, humanitarian relief, and food aid.
If President Trump were to abide by this policy, there would be many benefits. First, there is the potential for the U.S to help prevent the destabilization of countries in the region. Many of the asylum countries are heavily reliant on international support. By providing food, shelter and medical care, the U.S. is slowing refugee travel, and mitigating the war's impact on local governments that are struggling to cope with the influx of refugees. These relief efforts also give the U.S. the chance to prove its ability to lead without directly accepting any risk to its own well-being. As most of the distressed states are western allies, namely Turkey, Lebanon and France, U.S. relief efforts place them in a favorable light in their international relationships.
Yet, despite its advantages, this policy method is not infallible. The current aid provided by the U.S. is not enough to ease the pressure felt by asylum states, and the provision of that aid fails to fix the main source of the crisis. According to the World Food Program (WFP), it became necessary to reduce the value of food vouchers for Syrian refugees due to a shortage of resources and funding. In Lebanon, the ration allowance decreased from $27 per month per person to $13.50. The UN, despite requesting $8.4 billion to fund efforts in Syria in 2015, only received $3.8 billion, which is not enough to help everyone in need. Furthermore, while sending aid relieves and supports in the short-term, it fails to address the root of the refugee crisis. As withdrawing resources is not a practical option, the U.S. must continue to increase assistance while the statuses of refugee camps and states are still known. If the violence were to suddenly escalate, refugees would disperse, aid or not, and chances of survival for displaced people are higher if they have the resources to start with rather than not at all.
The United States’ best option for effectively dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis is to reform the current resettlement program, as it involves a combination of options one and two. This policy would make procedural changes to increase the number of refugees accepted into the country, while also limiting the burden felt by refugee-laden countries and protecting the economic well-being of the United States. If the U.S. pursued option three, they run the risk of severe economic consequences. Increasing aid is not a practical solution as President Trump has repeatedly pledged to slash non-defense program spending, which includes emergency aid. Furthermore, both President Trump and the Republican party believe that reducing the current $21 trillion debt is imperative for the well-being of the country, and that progress is achievable by enacting cuts within the federal government. Thus, providing even more money to struggling states does not seem feasible in the current political climate, as it only serves to increase the debt.However, since the Syrian refugee crisis is a worldwide concern, it’s important that the United States utilize their available resources and take progressive action. As a global superpower, the U.S. has an international responsibility to protect and aid countries that are unable to do so themselves. By reforming the resettlement program, which then allows for the admission of more refugees, the U.S. is helping to decrease the number of displaced people abroad. Moreover, while reforming the resettlement process has financial consequences, it has the potential of enacting long-lasting change to an immigration process that could prove beneficial in the future if another dire situation arises.