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February 29, 2016

The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Need for U.S. Leadership

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Foreword by Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker

The Syrian refugee crisis is at a pivotal moment. More than 11 million people are displaced within Syria, a country that has been ravaged by escalating violence, aerial bombings, and terror. Many civilians have been stranded in besieged areas of the country, cut off from international assistance.

Large numbers of Syrian refugees are now living in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, placing tremendous strains on those countries and their critical infrastructures—water, electricity, sanitation, health care and education. Stressing that the pressure of hosting so many refugees is impacting Jordan’s infrastructures and economy, King Abdullah II recently warned that his country was at a “boiling point” and that “the dam is going to burst.” The lack of sufficient international support, through aid and resettlement, is exacerbating these strains.

Last year more than 1 million refugees and migrants—about half of them Syrians—fled by sea to Europe, and NATO has now launched a mission to counter the smuggling operations that transport people to Europe’s shores.

This is a global crisis. It is a crisis that very much involves U.S. interests, and it is a problem that can only be successfully addressed if the United States leads. As detailed in Human Rights First’s report The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Need for U.S. Leadership, the United States must lead a major global initiative to address the refugee crisis. The United States must significantly increase its own humanitarian assistance, development investment, and resettlement commitments in order to enlist other states to do more, and to effectively advance its foreign policy interests.

A bold initiative—one that includes significant increases in resettlement and aid—will advance U.S. national security by alleviating the strains on refugee-hosting states and safeguarding the stability of a region that is home to key U.S. allies. While the United States is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance, American leadership cannot be defined simply by how large a check we write. We must also lead by example, and our allies in the Middle East and Europe need to see that we are truly sharing in the responsibility of hosting refugees.

We must also address the backlogs and bottlenecks that impede processing for refugees undergoing the resettlement process, and for Iraqis and Afghans who have put their lives on the line to work alongside the U.S. military. Severe backlogs undermine the reputation of these U.S. programs and the country’s ability to meet its commitments to its allies and to refugee-hosting states, as well as its commitments to protect vulnerable refugees. Refugees are more rigorously vetted than any travelers coming to the United States. Addressing backlogs would not undermine security; in fact it would strengthen the effectiveness of U.S. processing.

U.S. leadership of this global effort will not only benefit U.S. interests, it will also advance American ideals. In times of global crisis, our country cannot afford to abandon its ideals. This country’s values are inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty. In the words of Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Providing refuge to the most vulnerable in need of protection is what has built our nation and made it a beacon of hope in a dark world. This is not a partisan issue, it is an American issue.

I have served under both Democratic and Republican administrations, and I understand the power of our long tradition of bipartisan support for protecting vulnerable people who flee persecution and tyranny, and yearn for the freedom that is central to who we are as a nation. America’s leadership in protecting and resettling refugees has benefited the world—and enriched this country.

Faced with the largest refugee and displacement crisis since World War II, it is time for America to stand up for its values and to lead again.

–Ryan C. Crocker, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kuwait