Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Syrian Refugees: An International Game of Hot Potato

By Frances YangPublished October 24, 2014

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The mounting Syrian refugee crisis has found an unstable temporary solution in neighboring countries. Countries are closing their doors, and the question of who will pitch in to offer asylum to these 3 million refugees must move to the forefront of international coordination and agreement.
By Frances Yang, 10/24/14

In recent months, an international spotlight has centered on Syria and ISIS after the U.S. administration's decision to intervene in the civil war. Fighting began in 2011, and matters have only been escalating. An unprecedented number of refugees are fleeing for their lives. More than 190,000 people have been killed, and an estimated 4.25 million Syrians have been displaced within the borders of their own country. The United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) further reports that an overwhelming 3 million Syrian refugees have been registered to date, compared to 270,000 refugees who had registered in 2012. The U.N. and the rest of the world is now scrambling to deal with this refugee crisis, though some are scrambling more than others. 

Although the U.N. has outlined that the responsibility of sheltering refugees is to be shouldered collectively, most Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Lebanon in particular has accepted huge numbers of Syrian refugees; the country's population has grown over 20% this year due to the influx of over 1.2 million refugees. They have accepted so many refugees that the Lebanese Minister of Social Affairs has announced that his government has stopped accepting Syrian refugees. Local communities have been strongly impacted by the presence of refugees and the construction of their camps, and the government explains that there are simply no resources or room to accommodate new refugees. 

Lebanon is not the first to reject new refugees. Egypt closed its doors in 2013, and many refugees there are worried about risks of deportation. Jordan, which has already accepted somewhere near 600,000 refugees, claims that their borders are still open; however, reports find that no new refugees have been accepted in the past 44 days. It's clear that these countries will not be able to sufficiently take in anywhere near all the refugees still in need of asylum. So, the question remains: where will and can these refugees go? 

Uruguay recently accepted its first Syrian refugees, while Sweden welcomes around 600 refugees into its borders every week. But though the resettlement of refugees is worldwide, Canada and the United States have done notably little to accept any Syrian refugees. In the past year, Canada has accepted 200 Syrian refugees; the U.S. has accepted 191 since the beginning of the war. 

Post-9/11 concerns of the "War on terror" have attributed to these low numbers by the US. Stringent and bureaucratic restrictions on refugee policies paired with anti-terrorism measures in the U.S. have made the application process longer than that of other countries. There have been some moves in policy towards more accommodations. The U.S. has prepared to accept 70,000 refugees in 2015, though no program specific to Syrian refugees has been created. The U.S. has also broadened its definition of who can qualify for refugee resettlement to now extend to refugees who may have provided "insignificant material support" to terror organizations. U.S. refugees are also set on a path for permanent citizenship over temporary asylum. 

Dubbed the largest humanitarian crisis of the past twenty years, the Syrian refugee crisis is deserving of greater attention. Millions of people, half of them children, are in positions of major distress and immediate danger. Limited resources impact not only these refugees but also citizens of host countries, leading to general instability of the region. Without proper housing, food, or opportunities, everyone is placed in a precarious position. 

It is now necessary to open up the discussion to decide how to feasibly grant refugees both temporary and more permanent asylum. The problem of the war itself is clearly a priority, but many refugees are in immediate danger even after fleeing from the border. To help establish any semblance of stability in the Middle East, the U.S. should work to develop a comprehensive, sustainable plan beyond arbitrary funding and refugee quotas.