WASHINGTON — Only a tiny number of the more than 2 million refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war can meet the requirements to be resettled in the United States, frustrating international-relief officials who say the numbers needing help could nearly double in the coming year.
The Obama administration allowed only 90 Syrian refugees to make permanent homes in the United States from the start of the Syrian civil war through September. About 50 made the journey from camps outside Syria to lives in the United States in the past year, including 20 admitted since Oct. 1.
The trickle reflects the difficulty of resettling people during wartime and a lack of political pressure on the United States to do more.
U.S. officials say their efforts in Syria have been focused on providing immediate humanitarian relief. They also note that resettlement policy strongly favors refugees who are targeted for persecution based on religion, politics or sexuality — criteria not met by most Syrian refugees.
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International-relief officials say they are frustrated by the small number of refugees admitted and by the long waiting times and high security hurdles applicants must navigate for resettlement in the United States. Officials are reluctant to say the small numbers making it to U.S. shores mean that the United States isn’t pulling its weight.
Instead, many are hopeful about a new resettlement campaign by the Obama administration to bring up to 2,000 Syrians to the United States in the coming year, part of a stepped-up United Nations effort to permanently resettle more Syrians in other countries.
“We’re definitely trying to gear up,” said Larry Yungk, who works to coordinate U.S. resettlement efforts for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “The United States has pledged to be a major part of this.”
Hard to qualify
As desperate and horrifying as the circumstances of most of those 2 million refugees, only a minority meet U.N. and U.S. requirements for people so vulnerable that they simply can never go home again. Resettlement is the refuge of last resort and typically a sad hallmark of permanent political or sectarian shifts.
Refugees have to overcome stringent U.S. anti-terrorism security requirements before they can be admitted. The vetting process, which can take up to a year, screens out many whose path through Syria’s complex civil war is messy or undocumented.
Overall, the United States accepts more permanent refugees than any other nation — more than half the number selected for worldwide resettlement each year. Nearly 60,000 came to the United States from around the world in 2012, the last year for which complete figures are published. The figure for Syria that year was 31.
The United States has been the largest single donor to humanitarian efforts for Syrians over the nearly three-year civil war, about $1.4 billion to date.
Almost all the money is spent helping people inside Syria or in camps and communities in countries bordering Syria. In the three years since the civil war began, more than 800,000 Syrian refugees have flooded into Lebanon, and they account for as much as 20 percent of that country’s population. An additional 1 million Syrians are estimated to have fled to Jordan and Turkey.
“The United States is resolved to both play a meaningful and a large role,” through immediate humanitarian aid, “and over time, in resettlement for those people who can’t go home,” said Lawrence Bartlett, director of the State Department’s refugee resettlement office.
U.S. officials say the response is practical and generous, and international-relief agencies generally agree. Still, as the Syrian civil war grinds on and with predictions of the refugee population nearly doubling in the coming year, the paucity of Syrians allowed permanent refuge in the self-described nation of immigrants is striking.
A guard’s journey
A former security guard at the U.S. Embassy in Syria considers himself one of the lucky ones. The young father moved to Texas in August as one of those 50 granted refuge in 2013. He fled Syria a year earlier, after what he said were repeated arrests capped by 10 days of torture and accusations that he was an agent of the United States.
“I think that my previous work with the embassy helped me, because I haven’t seen any single other Syrian refugee here,” the man said in a phone interview.
The man spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of endangering relatives in Syria and Jordan, where he had fled before coming to the United States.
“Back in Jordan, many apply for refugee status to many countries, but my family and I are the only ones I know who got acceptance,” said the man, speaking through an interpreter. “We have survived with only our souls in our possession.”
The United States provides some money, and relief organizations provide help with housing and jobs. The Syrian man credits Catholic Charities with ensuring that he, his wife and four children got a good start.
Mostly, though, it is up to the immigrants to make new lives for themselves. The man in Dallas is working as a night-shift security guard, work he said is hard but welcome: “I’m thankful, because people die in refugee camps hoping for an opportunity such as the one I have.”
Most refugees say they want to go home when they feel safe enough, or when jobs, schools and health care return. Very few Syrians begin life on the move either thinking that they can never return or requesting a permanent move to the United States or any other Western country, U.S. and U.N. officials said.
The underlying assumption has been that the Syrian exodus — the largest mass movement of people in recent years — is temporary and reversible when fighting subsides or ends.
That belief is beginning to change as the conflict approaches its fourth year. The UNHCR began shifting emphasis toward long-term relocation of Syrian refugees several months ago, in recognition that the flow of people is overwhelming neighboring nations and is unlikely to stop or slow.
Even if the Bashar Assad government and rebels agreed to a cease-fire, many refugees would be reluctant to return home quickly.
And Syria’s economy and institutions will need years to recover once the violence stops.
“One of our big concerns is, how do we continue to do the work in 2014, 2015, 2016?” said Andrew Harper, UNHCR’s senior official in Jordan. “There’s not one positive indicator.”
The U.N. refugee agency projects that the Syrian war could produce 4 million refugees by the end of 2014. The United Nations is appealing for $6.5 billion in donations for next year, the largest such humanitarian appeal it has ever mounted. Most would go to help refugees in countries bordering Syria, where refugee camps have taken on an air of permanence that alarms host governments.
Announcing the ambitious fundraising goal this month, U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos predicted that nearly three in four Syrians will need some kind of humanitarian help in 2014.
Washington Post correspondent Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut contributed to this report.