As European leaders engage in a blame game over which nations have done too little to ease the plight of refugees from the world’s deadliest conflicts, the U.S. response has come in for scrutiny and been found sorely wanting by human rights advocates.
True, the U.S. government has provided the largest donation in response to the United Nations’ annual calls for funding of refugee shelter, food, medical aid and makeshift schooling. Since the start of the Syrian civil war in March 2011, Washington has provided more than $4 billion for relief to those fleeing the conflict that has displaced 4 million people.
But the number of asylum seekers permitted to resettle in the United States in recent years pales in comparison with the refuge granted by even the most unwelcoming countries of Europe. In the latest year for which Homeland Security statistics are available, the fiscal year ending in 2013, the number of Syrians granted U.S. asylum was 36.
Those who monitor the policies and processes for taking in refugees note that the United States significantly boosted the number of Syrians granted asylum in the current fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, last counted at 1,042. The State Department also recently agreed to raise its quota for resettling Syrians to as many as 8,000 in 2016.
Those changes have been welcomed by relief officials and refugee advocates, but they are expected to fall short of stepping up assistance to those needing it most: Muslims fleeing war and Islamic extremism in Syria.
“The problem is that they can’t switch gears, that the system is quite ossified and it has gotten much worse since 9/11,” Bill Frelick, director of the refugee rights program at Human Rights Watch, said of the manner in which U.S. officials decide which communities of refugees to give priority.
Syrian Muslims figure low on the list of asylum seekers designated as being of “special humanitarian concern” when U.S. politicians consider applicants from among the world’s 60 million refugees because of fears that would-be terrorists from Islamic State, also known as ISIS, occupying much of northeastern Syria might slip in among those trying to escape the violence.
“If there is even a whiff of a security concern, no consular officer or security officer [from the multitude of U.S. agencies vetting applicants] wants to be the one that has his name on the bottom of a form where someone turns out to have done something horrible,” Frelick said of the asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries in conflict. “There is every incentive to say no and very few incentives to say yes. This stigma of terrorism, the fear of a needle in the haystack, tends to hold the whole haystack back.”
The tragedy of that calculus, he added, is that “these refugees are the very people fleeing actors like ISIS. They are people who want no part of that world and those ideologies and want to come with their children to have a decent life where they won’t cower and live in fear.”
Politicians involved in the shaping of asylum policy acknowledge that concerns about terrorist infiltration play a role in their decisions. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Counterterrorism and Intelligence subcommittee, said during a June hearing that on-the-ground intelligence capabilities in Syria and Iraq are insufficient to identify asylum seekers with terrorist connections.
“Terrorists have made it known they want to manipulate the refugee program to sneak operatives to the West,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said at the same hearing.
Nearly 70,000 refugees were granted U.S. asylum in 2013, the year in which Syrians — arguably the most qualified under U.S. policy on rescuing those in life-threatening environs — numbered a mere three dozen. The asylum quota that year included more than 19,000 Iraqis, 16,000 from Myanmar, 7,600 Somalis and more than 2,000 from Sudan.
Antiwar activists argue that the United States has a moral obligation to aid and shelter refugees from conflicts it had a role in instigating, the Iraq war first among them.
“If America stopped waging wars against independent countries, the refugee crises would not happen. The way to help the refugees is to stop these wars,” said Stephen Lendman, a retired Chicago businessman who hosts a thrice-weekly “Progressive Radio News Hour.” He cited recent reports of covert drone strikes in Syria as the kind of U.S. action that endangers civilians and fuels extremist sentiments that imperil the West.
Some scholars of terrorism chafe at the criticism that the U.S. doesn’t do enough to help refugees from the Middle East’s caldron of conflicts.
“I don’t really agree with the premise that the U.S. is somehow being unresponsive,” said Jeffrey Bale, a professor of nonproliferation and counter-terrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey. “On the contrary, the refugee resettlement program in the U.S. has already taken in hundreds of thousands of Somalis and a significant number of Iraqis, and is now recommending taking in tens of thousands of Syrians, even though those Somali refugees have since created lots of problems.”
He was referring to increased crime rates and welfare dependency, as well as security threats posed by inadequate vetting of migrants to prevent Islamic extremists from gaining entry to the United States and other Western countries.
“Nor do I believe that it is mainly the responsibility of Western countries to resolve the refugee problems in non-Western parts of the world marked by war, other kinds of violence, poverty and disease. Why don’t the wealthy Arab gulf states, which are awash in oil money, take in tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of these Muslim refugees? Or why don’t nearby Muslim countries put pressure on [Syrian President Bashar Assad’s] regime or take military action against jihadist groups, actions which might significantly reduce the number of internal and external refugees in the first place?”