Since the 2011 onset of the Syrian war, more than 4.5 million of 22.8 million Syrians have become refugees. As millions flee armed conflict, violent extremism, chemical weapons, and barrel bombs, the question of where they go next arises. The vast majority of Syrian refugees want to remain in the Middle East, hoping to eventually return home: a 2015 poll of Syrian refugees in Europe found that only 8 percent of respondents wanted to stay indefinitely.
Yet, there is still a great need for resettlement for those remaining Syrian refugees seeking a new life, particularly for the most vulnerable 10 percent of refugees – the focus of the U.S. resettlement program – such as female heads of households with young children. While many allege that resettling Syrians could open the door to terrorists and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) sympathizers, the history of the program suggests otherwise.
Of the 784,395 refugees the United States has taken in since 9/11, including many from Iraq and Afghanistan, only three individuals – less than 0.0004 percent – have been arrested on terrorism charges. This infinitesimally low number is unsurprising given that refugees go through interviews, fingerprints, retinal scans, medical evaluations, interagency screening efforts, and sometimes years of waiting before reaching the United States. Syrians must also undergo the ‘Enhanced Syrian Review” which requires caseworkers at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Washington to assess each Syrian case individually and select some for processing through the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate office.
Since the U.S. resettlement system has been extremely successful in vetting refugees, it is imperative that the America increase Syrian refugee resettlement for several reasons.
It is completely unrealistic to ask countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey to accept additional refugees. For decades, Jordan has welcomed millions of Palestinians, Iraqis, and now Syrians. This February, however, King Abdullah of Jordan said, “for the first time, we can’t do it anymore.” The roughly 1.5 million registered and non-registered Syrian refugees residing in Jordan, a country of 6.5 million, constitute a significant source of instability to the Kingdom both politically and economically.
In 2015, the costs of housing Syrians comprised 17.5 percent of Jordan’s national budget, contributing to the country’s overall $2 billion budget deficit. Moreover, Jordan’s economy has little room to accommodate the refugees due to a high unemployment rate (12 percent) and youth joblessness rate (30 percent). According to a report by the International Labor Organization, 85 percent of Jordanians believe that Syrians should not be allowed to enter Jordan freely, and 65 percent believe that all Syrians should live within refugee camps. These perceptions exert political pressure on the Jordanian government and constrain its response to the refugee crisis.
Meanwhile, the roughly 1.3 million Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon – a state geographically smaller than Maryland – constitute around 25% of the country’s population. Lebanon’s economy has suffered with tourism dropping 23% and exports to Syria falling 7.5% since Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011. Finally, Turkey has spent over $8 billion providing for estimated 2.7 million Syrians in the country. The Syrian conflict’s perpetual nature is generating thousands of Syrian refugees by the day, especially as diplomatic negotiations in Geneva continue to break down. The Syrian refugee crisis has stretched these three important U.S. allies in the region to the breaking point and thus it is unrealistic for the United States to ask them to accept more Syrians.
Furthermore, resettlement can uniquely target the most vulnerable segments of the Syrian refugee population. Disturbingly large percentages of Syrian refugee children are out of school, crippling the prospects of rebuilding their country in the future. In Za’atari, a Syrian refugee camp of 80,000 in Jordan, more than 50 percent of children are not receiving an education. Additionally, reports of sexual abuse in the camp have increased of late, as has the number of forced adolescent marriages: brides under 18 in Syrian communities in Jordan shot up to 25 percent in the year 2013. As the U.S. resettlement program effectively targets vulnerable segments of society – including children out of school and young women in danger of sexual abuse – these disturbing trends are not irreversible.
Five years into the Syrian conflict, millions of Syrians are in dire need of assistance in order to keep living and maintain hope that one day they can rebuild their country. For the Syrians who wish to start a new life, in a new country, with a new school for their children, resettlement can be their answer. Though the rights of Syrians as promised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have been violated, specifically “the right to life, liberty and security of person,” there is hope in knowing that someone is fighting for those rights on your behalf. Greater willingness to resettle refugees in the United States would demonstrate that that fight is moving forward, and that even for those bereft of basic rights, hope remains.
Alexander Kochenburger is a recent graduate of the College of the Holy Cross and holds a B.A. in International Studies with a focus in the Middle East. In addition to writing his undergraduate thesis on the Syrian refugee crisis, he has experience studying Arabic in Morocco and interning with the Department of State, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. He has also received a Fulbright to return to Morocco for the 2017-2018 academic year.