U.S. needs to add a 0 to its 10,000 refugee commitment, aid groups say

Refugees walk past others resting on the ground at the border station between Serbia and Hungary near Horgos, Serbia, Sept. 16, 2015. (Credit: Sandor Ujvari/MTI via AP)

A decision by the White House to increase the number of refugees that the United States can accept is not good enough, according to several aid groups, and shows that the U.S. response to refugee crisis and the Syrian civil war is too weak. They argue that the United States should accept 100,000 – not 10,000 – people fleeing the war.

“This 10,000 is a number we could do in our sleep,” said Paul O’Brien, vice president for policy and campaigns for Oxfam America, in a media call. “This is fast becoming a legacy issue for the Obama administration, and they are not doing enough.”

Representatives from Mercy Corps, Save the Children, CARE, Physicians for Human Rights and others were also on the call. The speakers reiterated the idea that the U.S. has the capacity to do a lot more to support people affected by a crisis that now captures public attention.

Many other much smaller countries have stepped up to the challenge. One quarter of Lebanon’s population are Syrian refugees. Germany predicts it will take some 800,000 refugees and migrants. And Sweden has taken in 80,000, O’Brien said. He likened the request to having a baseball stadium full with 32,000 people and asking to accommodate six or 10 more.

Aid representatives were in agreement that the United States not only has the opportunity to help more people, but could also become a leader in addressing the crisis.

“We think the commitment by the U.S. to take in 10,000 refugees is not enough. Congress needs to step up,” said Carolyn Miles, CEO of Save the Children USA. “We believe the Untied States should do more. It is who we are and what we are about.”

The Obama administration increased its target acceptance last week from 2,000 to 10,000 refugees. In the face of criticism over that number, the White House says it must deal with fears of allowing more foreigners, particularly Muslims, into the country. The presence of the militant Islamist group the Islamic State in the Middle East gives rise to fears of greater instability in the region and potentially more attacks.

“These are not people who are going to be extremists,” said Suzanne Akhras, founder and director of the Syrian Community Network. “They want to come here for a better life.”

The Syrian Community Network has resettled 14 families in Chicago, so far. Akhras described how the families were grateful for the opportunity to live in a stable environment and spoke of the opportunities now afford to them in their new home city.

Images of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy, dead on a Turkish beach struck a nerve in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Awareness of the human toll has increased, but no amount of refugee aid is going to address the root of the problem – the Syrian civil war.

For four years rebel groups have fought against the Syrian army. President Bashar al-Assad oversees brutal bombings and attacks on his own people, displacing 12 million people from their homes. The number of displaced Syrians will only rise as the long as the conflict persists.

“People are finally understanding this is not about big aggregate numbers, it is about the pressure valves that force people to put their families on boats that do not float. There must be actions that relieve that pressure,” said O’Brien.

There is hope that change can come on the back of the historic Iran deal. The negotiations to strike a deal proved that countries can find common ground and move forward. Andrea Koppel, Mercy Corps vice president of global engagement and policy, joined O’Brien and others in saying that it is possible to find a peaceful resolution in Syria.

“Now that the deal is behind us, our hope is that the Obama administration will see this as an opportunity to leverage this new relationship with Iran for the betterment of the Syrian crisis,” she said. “They must sit down and hash it out. Think of how much time went into thrashing out the Iran deal. The same amount of time and energy needs to go into ending this war.”


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.