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Children rest on the ground at Piraeus harbor in Greece. (Photo: Michael Debets/Pacific/Barcroft )

As Major Culprit in Creating Crisis, US Rebuked for Failing Refugees

Observers say the U.S. is not only lagging in its humanitarian response, but also driving the war and conflict behind ongoing displacement

Sarah Lazare

As refugees are stranded at train stations, attacked by riot police, and killed during the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, Europe's failure to address the rising humanitarian crisis is being met with global outrage and sorrow.

Now, many are also looking across the Atlantic to the United States, where observers say key responsibility for the crisis lies—not only because the country is lagging in its humanitarian response, but also because its war policies lie at the root of the ongoing displacement.

"Iraqis, Syrians, Palestinians, and Libyans are not running away from their homes because of a natural disaster," Raed Jarrar, expert on Middle East politics and government relations manager for the American Friends Service Committee, told Common Dreams. "The U.S. should see this crisis as partially caused by its own actions in the region."

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said at a press briefing on Thursday that the United States sees no "impending policy changes" in light of the worsening crisis. He indicated the U.S. plan will remain focused on lending assistance from afar while letting EU nations take the lead on confronting the crisis. "There is certainly capacity in Europe to deal with this problem," Earnst said, "and the United States certainly stands with our European partners."

"Iraqis, Syrians, Palestinians, and Libyans are not running away from their homes because of a natural disaster. The U.S. should see this crisis as partially caused by its own actions in the region."
—Raed Jarrar, American Friends Service Committee

Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in March 2011, the U.S. estimates it has contributed over $4 billion in aid to those impacted by the conflict. That figure, Earnest declared, is "certainly more than any other country has done."

But Phyllis Bennis, senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, told Common Dreams that such claims are factually true, yet misleading. First of all, explained Bennis, the European Union donates money as a group. "But more significant," she continued, "is the fact that the U.S. is—by a high margin—the largest economy in the world, representing somewhere near 25 percent of the global economy. We should be paying 25 percent of whatever the United Nations says it needs, just as a starting point, without blinking. We don't do that."

What's more, many have pointed out that aid dollars pale in comparison to U.S. military spending. Yacoub El Hillo, the top United Nations humanitarian official in Syria, recently noted to the New York Times that while the U.S. government spends $68,000 an hour on warplanes targeting ISIS, the UN grapples with dramatic funding shortfalls in which it has less than 50 percent of what it needs to care for Syrians uprooted by war.

Oxfam America is calling on the United States to immediately boost the amount of money it sends to the World Food Program, which warned in mid-August that it is facing "critical funding shortages that forced it to reduce the level of the assistance it provides to some 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt."

And then there is the matter of the refugees themselves. The U.S. has admitted roughly 1,500 Syrian refugees since 2011 and says that it will resettle no more than 8,000 by the end of 2016. In 2013, the last year for which Homeland Security statistics are available, the U.S. granted asylum to just 36 people from Syria.

"This is getting attention now because refugees are trying to flood into Europe. But this should not just be about how do we support the Europeans."
—Phyllis Bennis, Institute for Policy Studies
This puts the U.S. far behind Germany, which has committed to accepting up to 800,000 refugees by the end of this year.

However, even Germany's commitments pale in comparison to the roughly 4 million Syrian refugees who have fled to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq—where a refugee crisis has long been brewing. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees now comprise one quarter of the population.

"This is getting attention now because refugees are trying to flood into Europe," said Bennis. "But this should not just be about how do we support the Europeans."

The aid group International Rescue Committee is circulating a petition for the the U.S. to resettle at least 65,000 Syrian refugees by 2016, and it has so far garnered nearly 12,000 signatures. And 14 Senate Democrats have joined in the call to "dramatically increase the number of Syrian refugees that we accept for resettlement."

But many insist the ultimate solution lies in creating the conditions that will allow refugees to return home—where U.S.-led policies laid the groundwork for the ongoing violence, including the rise of ISIS.

"The U.S. should consider some immediate humanitarian solutions to ease the suffering of millions of refugees fleeing the Middle East, but we should also keep in mind that humanitarian assistance is not the solution to this crisis," Jarrar emphasized. "The ultimate solution to the onging refugee crisis is a political solution that will stabilize the region and give refugees the option to go back home."

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