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The Syrian war — and the refugee crisis which it has spurred — has everything to do with U.S. actions dating back to the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, which gave rise to ISIS in the first place. Even now the U.S. airstrikes in Syria and neighboring Iraq are escalating the war in both places. (Photo: UNHCR Photo Unit / Flickr)

What America Owes the Refugees Pouring Into Europe

Here's how the U.S. can leverage its wealth, safety, and diplomacy to serve the refugees it helped to create.

Phyllis Bennis

 by Foreign Policy In Focus

The vision of hundreds of thousands of desperate human beings fleeing airstrikes, terror, and violence from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and beyond has brought the stark human cost of today’s “anti-terror” wars to the front pages. The heart-breaking photo of one small boy, still clad in a “red shirt, blue jeans, and little sneakers,” as a now-viral poem goes, washed up on the Turkish shore, has brought the horror of that stark reality into our hearts.

Indeed, the refugee crisis growing out of the multi-faceted Syrian war and others is now a full-blown global emergency. It’s not only an emergency because it’s now reaching Europe. It’s an emergency several years in the making as conditions have deteriorated throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In addition to Syria, refugees are also pouring into Europe — or dying as they try — from Libya, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Bangladesh, and beyond.

But it’s the war in Syria — now involving a host of regional, sectarian, and global actors all fighting their own wars to the last Syrian — that lies at the bloody center of the current crisis. And here the United States bears no small responsibility.

The Syrian war — and particularly the rise of ISIS — has everything to do with U.S. actions dating back to the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, which gave rise to ISIS in the first place. Even now the U.S. airstrikes in Syria and neighboring Iraq are escalating the war in both places.

So emergency responses, particularly from the United States, need to start — though they must not end — with Syria. The Obama administration’s decision to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees into the country next year is a welcome step, but not remotely adequate.

Here’s what needs to happen next.

Immediately, the United States should announce:

  • An increase in daily U.S. refugee assistance to the World Food Program and the UN Human Rights Committee equivalent to the daily cost of U.S. military action against ISIS — that is, about $9 million a day.
  • A decision to immediately accept 65,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year, as called for by leading human rights organizations.

In next 30 days, Washington should roll out:

  • A plan to parole desperate refugees into the United States on humanitarian grounds. They should be provided with temporary protected status as long as conditions in their home countries remain dangerous. Once they’re in the United States, safe and provided with medical care, housing, work, education, and other support, longer-term protection can be determined on a case by case basis. Such an administrative decision can be made by the White House alone.

In next 45 days, the White House should announce:

  • That the United States will provide 28 percent of needed emergency refugee assistance, equivalent to the U.S. share of global wealth. That means…
  • That it will immediately pay 28 percent of the current United Nations refugee relief request, which totals $5.5 billion to support almost 6 million Syrian and related refugees through the end of this year. That would amount to approximately $1.5 billion in U.S. contributions by the end of 2015.
  • That the United States will accept 28 percent of those refugees from Syria (and others forced to flee as a result of the Syrian war) who need refuge abroad. That means 28 percent of up to 4 million refugees as determined by the United Nations, or up to 1.12 million refugees who are allowed to come to the United States.

It should be noted that fewer than 1,000 Syrians have been allowed into the United States this year, while Germany has already agreed to take in 800,000. The limits on numbers of refugees allowed into the United States each year are set by the White House, and fluctuate for political and policy reasons. (For example, in just over a decade, beginning with the decline of the Soviet Union in 1990, more than 378,000 Soviet Jews immigrated to the United States. In 1992 alone, more than 62,000 entered the country.)

Finally, in next 60 days, the U.S. should develop:

  • A new plan, now that the Iran nuclear deal is being implemented, to engage with Iran as well as all other regional and global players in a renewed United Nations-led diplomatic and arms embargo initiative to end the Syrian war.

© 2021 Foreign Policy In Focus
Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is the 7th updated edition of "Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer" (2018). Her other books include: "Ending the Iraq War: A Primer" (2008),  "Understanding the US-Iran Crisis: A Primer" (2008) and "Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy US Power" (2005). 

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