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AFSC: U.S. must aid Syrian refugees, help end causes of their plight

Syrian refugees
Syrian refugees pass through the border from Greece into Macedonia on Aug. 22, 2015. Original photo by Sakis Mitroldis, adapted under CC license Photo: / AFSC

The heart of the refugee crisis isn’t in Europe; it is in Syria and surrounding countries.

Since March 2011, an estimated 10 million Syrians have fled their homes seeking refuge from violence and insecurity. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq are now sheltering over 4 million Syrians. This number is likely an underestimate because it only includes refugees officially registered with the U.N. commission. Saudi Arabia just announced that another 2.5 million Syrians have moved there in the last few years, but these Syrians as well as unregistered Syrians in other countries are not counted among refugees. Another 6.5 million Syrians are internally displaced within Syria.

In recent months this crisis has gained significant international attention as European countries have been forced to respond to increased inflows of refugees from Syria and other countries. But the heart of this crisis is not in Europe; it is in Syria and surrounding countries. While Jordan has taken in over 600,000 refugees, Lebanon over 1 million refugees, and Turkey 1.9 million refugees, since 2011 only 428,000 Syrians have sought asylum in Europe.

Over the last two years, there has been a significant increase in the number of people seeking asylum in Europe, but these numbers are still dwarfed by the total number of refugees flowing into the countries neighboring Syria. The numbers are also dwarfed by the huge population of the European Union, which makes all the refugees received by the EU so far this year less than one-tenth of one percent of Europe’s total population. The U.S. has been even less responsive allowing only 1,200 Syrians to resettle here.

Too much of the burden of responding to this crisis has fallen on host countries neighboring Syria. The U.N. estimates that the number of Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR will increase from 3.2 million in late 2014 to 4.27 million by December 2015. If the conflict continues, another million refugees might leave Syria in 2016. The scale of the crisis can’t be denied.

AFSC believes that welcoming Syrian refugees and resettling them is important, but it is not a sustainable solution to the crisis. What will happen when neighboring host countries exceed their already shrinking capacities to accept refugees? Will European and other nations in the West continue to open their doors? What happens if refugee flows continue to grow at current rates for several years?

While AFSC fully supports resettlement options, we recognize that resettling an increased number of Syrian refugees in Europe and the U.S. does not address the root causes of the problem. The root of the problem is the Syrian civil war. Ending that war must become a top priority.

The modern Middle East has struggled to address the impact of previous wars and the unresolved displacement of people they have caused. More than 6 million Palestinians now live in exile outside their homeland and millions of Iraqis remain exiled following the war. The violence and displacement has fundamentally threatened the character of the existing Middle East states.

Resettlement also is not the best option for refugees. Most refugees might not want to be resettled. If given an option, most might rather return home. It is mostly insecurity and violence that is stopping refugees from returning to their communities, and it is this violence that leads to the current migration.

Ending the Syrian civil war won’t be easy, but AFSC calls on the U.S. government and the international community to further peace efforts and address the refugee crisis by considering the following:

  • Agreeing to a comprehensive arms embargo, including halting the flow of weapons from countries neighboring Syria, and halting training and technical assistance to all armed groups involved in the conflict.
  • Increasing humanitarian assistance, particularly to neighboring host countries, in order to address the needs of those impacted by the conflict and to support resilience within host communities. 
  • Sponsoring multilateral negotiations to achieve a ceasefire and end the conflict, including as many parties to the conflict as possible and seeking support from international and regional powers. 
  • Acknowledging the U.S. role in the wars on Iraq, including the violent overthrow of the government and use of crippling economic sanctions as major contributors to the current crisis in the region. 
  • Increasing the number of refugees the U.S. resettles in FY16 to 200,000 with 100,000 being Syrians.