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March 13, 2014

Strong U.S. Commitment and Leadership Key to Launch of Global Resettlement Initiative for Syrian Refugees

At an event in Washington, D.C. yesterday, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres emphasized the need for—and indispensable role of—U.S. leadership in the effort to help Syrian refugees.

As our November 2103 report Refuge at Risk: US leadership and the Syria Crisis pointed out, leading the effort to resolve the crisis is not just a moral but strategic imperative of the United States. The crisis could lead to destabilization of the region, and would deal a serious blow to U.S. foreign policy priorities.  The United States in particular cannot afford to see Lebanon or Jordan, a cornerstone of stability in the Middle East, become unstable.

More than 2.5 million Syrians have fled from the persecution and violence, and this number may reach 4 million by the end of the year.  The bordering countries are facing many challenges as they try to accommodate refugees while stillproviding for their own citizens. Despite the generosity of host states and some donors, Syrian refugees are typically denied the opportunity to work and they struggle to survive in exile.

While Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon are each hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees, the borders of the rest of the world are largely closed to Syrians. As a result, the High Commissioner noted yesterday, many Syrian refugees pay exorbitant fees to dubious smuggling operations or risk their lives trying to cross the sea in unsafe boats headed forEurope. He urged nations beyond the immediate region (as well as those within it) to keep borders open to Syrian refugees and create mechanisms, including family reunification, to give them a legal avenue of entry.

The High Commissioner stressed that resettlement is a top priority, and he called on European and North American states to announce enhanced resettlement and humanitarian admission initiatives. Earlier this year, the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) had called on states to make 30,000 places available for Syrian refugees.  On February 21, it announced the need for a more significant resettlement initiative now calling for 50,000 places in 2015 and another 50,000 in 2016.  High Commissioner Guterres reiterated that need at yesterday's event.  

But, as the High Commissioner emphasized, the success of this initiative depends on the United States. Historically, the U.S. has resettled more refugees than all other countries combined. No other country can guarantee the success of a large-scale effort to resettle Syrian refugees, he stressed.  “I remain hopeful,” the High Commissioner said, “that the United States will announce a meaningful resettlement initiative very soon.”

Human Rights First has called on the U.S. government to announce an initial resettlement commitment of at least 15,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees in our report. All refugees will be interviewed by Department of Homeland Security officers and undergo extensive background and security checks—safeguards that have been enhanced in recent years.  As the refugee crisis continues and deepens, the need for resettlement and U.S. leadership will rise significantly. 

U.S. leadership will encourage other states to step up their commitment to provide resettlement and refuge to Syrian refugees, and show key allies like Jordan and Turkey that the United States is willing to share in the responsibility of hosting vulnerable Syrian refugees. 

As we enter the fourth year of this crisis, the need for U.S. leadership has never been clearer.  In the face of the escalating human suffering and strain on states in the region, silence on a commitment to resettlement is no longer an option.  The U.S. government should launch a major resettlement initiative—and do so now.