9-27-2013By Duncan Breen
Refugee Protection Program
Next week in Geneva, foreign ministers will convene to discuss ways to support Syria’s neighbors as they host hundreds of thousands of refugees. The United States has contributed significant resources to help address the humanitarian crisis, far more than any other nation. This gives the U.S. delegation, led by Deputy Secretary Bill Burns, even greater standing to use this high-level meeting to: 1) advocate strongly for access to protection for Syrian refugees; 2) encourage other donors to increase their contributions to assist Syrian refugees; and 3) make a firm commitment to increase its own resettlement of Syrian refugees to the United States. This special session follows a meeting earlier this month between the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and ministers from Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon – the countries that, along with Egypt, host around 97% of the more than two million Syrian refugees registered by UNHCR.
Syria’s neighbors have responded generously to the crisis by taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees. But some have introduced stricter border policies that have blocked refugees fleeing Syria from accessing international protection. These kinds of restrictions and border closures are inconsistent with international human rights and refugee protection obligations. Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt have each at some time placed restrictions on access to protection such as: closing a border crossing; restricting the number of refugees who can cross each day; refusing to allow Syrians without identity documents to seek asylum; denying entry to specific populations such as Iraqi refugees or Palestinians who were living in Syria; or introducing new difficult-to-fulfill visa requirements. As more Syrian refugees travel beyond the region in search of protection into Europe and North Africa, many have been denied entry or have been detained, and in some cases deported. While states may have different reasons for placing restrictions on entry, these should not result in refugees being denied international protection. The United States should work with these states to help address their concerns but make it clear that access to protection must not be compromised.
The United States has been the largest contributor of humanitarian aid in response to the Syrian crisis. On Monday, President Obama announced an additional $339 million to support the humanitarian response inside Syria, in addition to the aid for refugees. At next week’s meeting in Geneva, the United States should continue to praise Syria’s neighbors for hosting vast numbers of refugees and should encourage other donors to increase their contributions. But the United States should also advocate strongly for refugee protection and express concerns about recent border closures and other restrictions that deny access to protection for refugees fleeing Syria.
The United States has the world’s largest refugee resettlement program. But it is resettling very few refugees from Syria at present. The United States should use the opportunity of next week’s meeting to announce a commitment to significantly increase the numbers of Syrian refugees it will accept through its resettlement program. At the U.N. General Assembly this week, Lebanese President Sleiman asked for help beyond financial assistance and stressed the need “to search for ways to share the burdens and numbers among States.” As the UNHCR steps up its efforts to identify the most vulnerable Syrian refugees for resettlement, the United States should make clear its commitment to resettling increasing numbers of Syrian refugees and take steps to proactively address potential bars to protection under U.S. immigration law.