*This article was originally published in The National.
June 13, 2013
NEW YORK // The Obama administration is ready to consider a request from the United Nations’ refugee agency to resettle some Syrian refugees in the US, as countries bordering their embattled homeland strain to cope with the escalating humanitarian crisis caused by the 27-month civil war.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has yet to make a formal request to the US and other countries to resettle some Syrian refugees. Daniel McNorton, a spokesman, said UNHCR was in contact with the US and other governments over the issue, but that it was in its “early stages”.
The US state department said this week that Washington was ready to help.
“UNHCR has recently determined that resettlement should play a larger role in its response to the situation in Syria. The US is prepared to respond and will encourage other resettlement countries to do the same,” said Patrick Ventrell, the US state department’s acting deputy spokesperson.
Informal discussions were expected in Geneva this week during the UNHCR’s annual consultation with NGOs. Conversations between the UNHCR and government officials typically take place in private meetings outside the scope of the conference, according to a source.
The UNHCR said more than 1.6 million refugees were registered or waiting for an appointment but hundreds of thousands of others had fled their country since the upheaval began in March 2011, with about 50,000 escaping across its border each month.
Particularly at risk from the influx of Syrian refugees are Lebanon and Jordan, nations whose politics are volatile and sectarian balances delicate. The UN has requested US$5.1 billion (Dh18.7bn) to provide assistance to refugees in both countries.
Wael Abou Faour, Lebanon’s caretaker social affairs minister, said on Tuesday that his country of 4.2 million people was sheltering more than 1.2 million Syrians, only 500,000 of whom were officially registered as refugees. Their presence was driving up prices and putting enormous pressure on government services, he said.
“These small countries can’t handle this,” said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s just another sign of how this crisis is spilling over its borders and it is very difficult to contain.”
Any stepped-up attempt to help Syrian refugees must involve more than the US, said Lavinia Limon, head of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, which works with the federal government to settle refugees across the United States.
“If you are really going to make a difference to Turkey and Jordan and Lebanon, who are hosting these [refugees], you have to have a larger effort,” Ms Limon said.
Mohammed Ghanem, director of government relations at the Syrian American Council, a non-governmental advocacy group, said he would actively lobby the US government after it received a formal request from the UNHCR to take in some Syrian refugees.
“We are glad that the administration and the state department said they would consider [admitting larger numbers] if they got a request from the United Nations. And right now we have to do all we can to ensure this actually takes place.”
If the Obama administration agrees to take in some of the neediest Syrian refugees, the number is unlikely to be large.
At present the US resettles between 60,000 and 65,000 refugees a year and has set a cap of 70,000 for this year. To exceed that number would require a presidential order, congressional consultation and more money.
Obtaining refugee status is also arduous, involving several interviews and a security clearance. It is also lengthy, taking an average of 6-8 months and often more than a year.
“The US resettlement process is deliberate and lengthy due to intensive security screening and other requirements,” Mr Ventrell said.