House Hearing Demonstrates the Need for U.S. Leadership on Protection of Syrian Refugees
As the number of Syrian refugees registered in neighboring countries continues to rise beyond the two million mark, reports continue to emerge of Syria’s neighbors closing border points or limiting the ability of Syrians seeking international protection to enter their countries. Yesterday, in her testimony submitted to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration Anne Richard acknowledged that:
In recent weeks the number of refugees crossing has decreased at some border points because refugee-hosting countries have taken steps to restrict the flow. Measures include limiting the number that can cross per day or imposing stricter requirements for identity documents. Some crossing points have been closed completely.
Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey have all at some point closed border crossings. Recent reports suggest that Jordan has been limiting access on its western border. Writing from Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, Nicholas Kristof notes that “public resentment has apparently led the government to tighten the arrival spigot recently, and many tens of thousands of displaced Syrians are now reportedly stuck on the Syrian side of the border.” At Jordan’s Nasib border crossing, Syrian refugees, including families with children, have been told to come back in one month. Jordan has also been routinely denying entry to Palestinian and Iraqi refugees coming from Syria.
Egypt, which initially welcomed Syrian refugees, has started requiring a valid visa obtained in advance, effectively shutting its door. Egypt has also drawn criticism from the U.N. refugee agency for detaining and even deporting Syrian refugees.
The number of Syrians registered as refugees in border countries has surpassed 2 million. While the generosity of Syria’s neighbors should be commended, the United States and other states should also consistently raise concerns regarding the denial of protection. Assistant Secretary Richard noted in her written testimony that “we have asked neighboring countries to keep borders open, urged them to respect the rights of people seeking to flee the violence, and discussed different ways of helping these governments cope.” In her opening statement, Subcommittee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also recognized that “Jordan has pledged to keep its borders open to those fleeing Syria despite the heavy burden that this places on the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.”
The United States has led efforts to address the plight of Syria’s refugees and displaced persons, reflecting both U.S. interest in the stability of the region as well as U.S. global leadership in protecting those who flee persecution. The commitment of key leaders and Congress members was evident throughout yesterday’s hearing. The United States should also continue, and step up, its efforts to support access to international protection in by taking the following steps:
- Investigate reports of refugees being prevented from crossing to safety and consistently raise these concerns with Syria’s neighbors.
- Continue to provide humanitarian and development aid to support host countries and host communities and step up diplomatic efforts to encourage other donor countries to support states hosting refugees.
- Increase the resettlement of Syrian refugees as a means of demonstrating support for Syria’s neighbors as well as providing a new life for some of the most vulnerable refugees affected by the crisis.
Leadership should come from those at the top, including President Obama, Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel, so that Syria’s neighbors get a clear message on the importance of refugee protection.