How the U.S. Can Do More for Syrian Refugees

There are easy steps the government can take to help Syrians displaced by war.

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A Syrian refugee holds a German flag as other refugees carry their luggage while waiting to board a bus to Beirut International Airport for a flight to Germany where they have been accepted for temporary resettlement, at the International Organization for Migration office in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. The dozens of Syrians heading to Germany on Thursday were the second batch of the 4,000 refugees that Germany has accepted to receive on two-year visas while Syria remains mired in a two-year civil war that has killed over 100,000 people, displaced 5 million within their own country, and prompted another 2 million people to flee the country as refugees.

The conflict in Syria has created a massive refugee crisis. The number of refugees that have fled the country, already estimated at 2 million, is expected to double by the end of 2014. The refugee crisis is the largest displacement of people in decades, producing more refugees than either Rwanda or Bosnia.

So, how many Syrian refugees has the United States – a nation that prides itself on opening its doors to "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" – allowed into the country?

90.

By comparison, Syrian refugees now comprise 10 percent and 22 percent of Jordan and Lebanon's entire populations, respectively. Many European nations have also opened their doors to Syrian refugees, including Sweden, which accepted 14,700 Syrians, and Germany, which has taken in 18,000 refugees. Even tiny Bulgaria has received 5,000 Syrian refugees.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

While American officials urge Syria's neighbors to "refrain from restricting or closing their borders, and offer refuge to all those fleeing the conflict," the U.S. has been reluctant to do so itself, prompting Jordan's King Abdullah to state "my people cannot be asked to shoulder the burden of what is a regional and global challenge."

But, from the U.S. point of view, Syria's refugee crisis isn't just a global humanitarian challenge – it's also a security challenge that's destabilizing an already volatile region. The U.S. must act to combat this instability and support our allies in the region. While the United States has so far provided $1.3 billion in humanitarian aid, far more than any other nation, there are still a number of much less expensive options available that would help to alleviate this refugee crisis.

An easily implemented first step would be for the Department of Homeland Security to extend humanitarian parole for the nearly 6,000 Syrian nationals with approved immigration petitions by providing them with temporary visas, as Reps. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Frank Wolf, R-Va., have argued. Allowing already-vetted refugees to rejoin family members in the U.S. would take minimal effort.

[Check out 2013: The Year in Cartoons.]

Under normal circumstances, refugee resettlement can take between six and 12 months. Expedited processing, however, can shorten that time considerably, which would be invaluable to refugees suffering in squalid camps. The U.S. has applied  such processing in the past to specific groups, and it should do so again given the gravity of this crisis.

Additionally, under the administration's refugee admissions policy for 2014, the State Department has an unallocated reserve that allows it to take up to 2,000 refugees from any region. Applying that reserve to Syrian refugees would be an easy step – and more importantly, would give us "skin in the game," as Schiff put it.

Certainly, the U.S. has already assisted the Syrian people a great deal by working with the international community to permanently remove the threat posed by the Assad regime's chemical weapons and contributing $1.3 billion in aid. Nevertheless, by taking the simple action of increasing the number of Syrian refugees into this nation, the U.S. can alleviate the pressure on regional allies and convince other countries to take in more refugees as well. The convergence of humanitarian and strategic concerns is a rare opportunity. Congress and the Obama administration should not waste it.

Faris Alikhan is a national security fellow at Third Way. Follow him on Twitter: @FarisAlikhan1

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