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Home / Press Release / U.S. Pledge at UNHCR Meeting in Geneva Falls Short of Leadership Needed to Address Syrian Refugee Crisis
March 30, 2016

U.S. Pledge at UNHCR Meeting in Geneva Falls Short of Leadership Needed to Address Syrian Refugee Crisis

New York City – Human Rights First today said that the Obama Administration today missed a key opportunity to demonstrate meaningful leadership in addressing the global refugee crisis. During the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) meeting on "Global Responsibility Sharing through Pathways for Admission of Syrian Refugees” held in Geneva, Switzerland the United States did not announce an increase in its commitment to resettle Syrian refugees. Speaking at the conference today, Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom reiterated the U.S. commitment to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year and to provide more direct access to resettlement consideration for some Syrian refugees with family in the United States. 

“It is disappointing to see the Obama Administration miss yet another opportunity to lead by example. Successfully addressing this global refugee crisis, the largest since World War II, demands strong leadership from the United States,” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer. “The U.S. commitment to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees is paltry compared to the scale of the Syrian refugee crisis and the strong U.S. interest in supporting the stability of Syrian border states who are bearing the brunt of this crisis."

According to the United Nations, approximately 480,000 Syrian refugees are in need of resettlement or other pathways to protection. Over 4.8 million Syrians have fled their country due to conflict and persecution, with Syrian border states, including Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, hosting the majority of these refugees. In response to the large influx of refugees states have closed their borders, blocking civilians from escaping Syria, and imposed restrictions that make it difficult for many refugees living in the region to remain.

As of last month, more than one–third of the way through the fiscal year, the United States had resettled only 955 out of the 10,000 Syrian refugees it pledged to resettle by the end of September. A recent Human Rights First report from a research trip to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey found that the U.S. resettlement process is hampered by bottlenecks, backlogs, and staffing gaps, which undermine the United States’ ability to meet its humanitarian, protection, and foreign policy goals. Despite significant U.S. efforts to step up resettlement processing, these backlogs and staffing gaps are making it difficult for the United States to meet even its modest commitment to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees, which amounts to only about 2 percent of the Syrian refugees in need of resettlement and less than 0.2 percent of the overall Syrian refugee population. 

Secretary Higginbottom highlighted the U.S. measure begun in February to allow more direct access to U.S. resettlement consideration for some Syrian refugees with U.S. family, those who have approved I-130 petitions. While these refugees can now be considered for resettlement by the United States without awaiting a U.N. referral, they undergo the same rigorous security screening process that is in place for all Syrian refugees, the most rigorous process applied to any person traveling to the United States. A December 2015 letter from a bipartisan group of 20 former U.S. national security advisors, CIA directors, secretaries of state, defense, and homeland security, confirm this rigorous vetting and express that failing to provide refuge to those fleeing violence would undermine the United States' core objective of combating terrorism.

Human Rights First welcomes the implementation of priority access for this group of Syrian refugees with certain family in the United States, noting that this move does not in and of itself indicate an increase in the number of Syrian refugees to be resettled to the United States. The organization also notes that about 4,000 Syrians, with U.S. family and approved I-130 petitions, are currently living as refugees in the region. Many Syrians with approved I-130s are currently located in Syria, but as the countries surrounding Syria have largely closed their borders, Syrians with U.S. family would generally be unable to leave Syria in order to cross to another country to seek processing of their cases. 

Human Rights First continues to urge the United States to  lead a comprehensive global initiative to address the refugee crisis and to address the backlogs hampering the U.S. resettlement process. The United States should:

  • Work with other donor states to fully meet humanitarian appeals and significantly increase U.S. humanitarian aid and development investments in frontline refugee hosting states;
  • Champion the protection of the rights of refugees, including their right to work, access education, and cross borders in order to escape persecution. 
  • Substantially increase its resettlement commitment. For fiscal year 2017, the U.S. government should, in addition to resettling refugees from other countries, aim to resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees, a commitment more commensurate with both the American tradition of leadership and U.S. national security interests. 
  • Address staffing gaps to reduce backlogs and bottlenecks in resettlement and Special Immigrant Visa processing for applicants who worked with the U.S. military.  
  • Negotiate permission for some of the Syrians with U.S. family and approved I-130 petitions to cross the border out of Syria for purposes of U.S. processing in those neighboring countries where the United States conducts processing, and should expand access to other Syrian refugees with family in the United States.  

"In the months preceding the planned high-level refugee summit to be hosted by the United States during the U.N. General Assembly in September, we urge President Obama to announce a major U.S. initiative that includes a significant increase in U.S. resettlement of Syrian refugees,” added Acer. "It is long past time for the United States to lead by example."  

For more information or to speak with Acer contact Mary Elizabeth Margolis at [email protected] or 212-845-5269.