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Jakarta Post

US under pressure to accept more Syrian refugees

  • Dave Clark

    The Jakarta Post

Washington, United States   /   Fri, September 4, 2015   /  08:42 am
US under pressure to accept more Syrian refugees A Syrian refugee flashes the victory sign after arriving on the shores of Lesbos island in Greece in an inflatable boat from Turkey on August 23. (AFP/Achilleas Zavallisa) (AFP/Achilleas Zavallisa)

A Syrian refugee flashes the victory sign after arriving on the shores of Lesbos island in Greece in an inflatable boat from Turkey on August 23. (AFP/Achilleas Zavallisa)

As the world watches drowned refugees wash up on Europe's beaches, the United States is also under pressure to do more to help the desperate victims of Syria's civil war.

Since fighting erupted in 2011 the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has recommended 17,000 Syrians for resettlement in the United States. By the end of this month, it will have accepted around 1,800.

Traditionally, the United States has led the world in accepting and resettling large numbers of those fleeing persecution, but refugee advocates warn it has fallen behind on Syria.

Washington has promised to do more if it can, but Syrian refugees -- even those screened and approved by the UNHCR in crowded camps -- are subject to stringent, and lengthy, US security checks.

Larry Yungk, senior resettlement officer with UNHCR, said the United States was working hard to interview and process Syrian refugees but the resettlement process is not fast.

"In recent years additional security measures mean resettlement that once took 9 to 12 months, now typically takes 18 months or longer," he told AFP.

"Waiting for months or years for resettlement is difficult for refugees, especially families living in difficult and often dangerous conditions."

David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, also paid tribute to the outsize role the world's biggest economy usually plays, but pointed to a problem.

"There was a record last year of 20 million refugees around the world. Those who are resettled in richer countries are around 150,000 or so. The US takes around 70,000," he told MSNBC, in an interview.

"But the record from Syria, I'm afraid does not amount to leadership. The United States since the Syria conflict began has taken 1,234 refugees, so more or less 250 a year."

- 'Acute desperation ' -

More than four million people have fled Syria's brutal civil war and live packed into camps in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraqi Kurdistan.

There, UNHCR staff work with them to confirm their identity and refugees status. The hope is that after the war many will go home, but the most vulnerable cases are referred for resettlement abroad.

The United States is one of the countries that has agreed to take in the refugees, but it conducts a screening process of its own to ensure that those fleeing extremist violence do not bring it with them.

US Homeland Security officials fly to the Middle East and conduct interviews with families before approving them, amid fears groups like the Islamic State might try to infiltrate the process.

Along with medical checks, in all it is a procedure one refugee worker described as the most stringent for any category of traveller heading to the United States.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States would try to increase the speed with which it addresses refugee cases, while working for a longer-term political solution in Syria.

"As compelling as it it, the situation of these refugees, our first priority is to protect the national security of the United States, to protect US citizens," he said, asked why the process had slowed.

"Certainly there is an urgency," he admitted. "We have improved our numbers and admitted more Syrian refugees.

"Certainly I realize that in relation to the number of referrals to us from the UNHCR it still seems small, but we have significantly raised those numbers."

And, defending America's broader record, he added: "We are the largest humanitarian donor to the Syrian conflict. We're helping refugees within Syria and outside of Syria."

Anna Greene, the International Rescue Committee's policy and advocacy director, told AFP that the speed with which countries can accept the most vulnerable for resettlement has a direct impact on the crisis.

"People sense that there's no end in sight to the conflict," she said. "Two or three years ago there wasn't the same acute sense of desperation."

And, as the resettlement process drags on, more and more refugees leave the camps and try to make their own way west, with often tragic consequences.

Europe could of course do more but, Greene said, if the United States steps up its game, other countries "really do follow the US lead."

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