Last week, President Donald Trump ordered a targeted military strike in response to Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad’s brutal chemical attack on his own innocent civilians. In his remarks after the attack, President Trump said, “no child of God should ever suffer such horror.”
In light of the attack, there is renewed interest in ways the U.S. can assist Syrian civilians living inside of a war zone, including increasing refugee resettlement, working with other countries to expand resettlement programs, and increasing funding to aid organizations.
The crisis in Syria is the worst humanitarian disaster in generations, and the U.S. should do more to protect Syrian civilians looking for safety.
President Trump correctly noted that the refugee crisis continues to deepen in Syria as the region destabilizes. Since 2011, more than 470,000 civilians have been killed. The conflict has triggered the largest refugee crisis in modern history—half the Syrian population have left their homes either for another country or a safer location in Syria.
The effects on Syrian children are particularly devastating. Nearly three million Syrian children are out of school, subject instead to violence and fear. UNICEF reports that the decline in Syrian childhood education has been the sharpest and most rapid in the history of the region.
The new interest in Syria from the administration marks a stark change. Perhaps then, the President is ready to alter his position on humanitarian assistance as well, including refugee resettlement, for Syrians in distress? If so, here are additional actions the Trump administration can take to prioritize the safety of the Syrian people.
The President should first cease efforts to block Syrian refugees from coming to the United States. Offering a second chance at life to Syrians in desperate need and protecting national security are not mutually exclusive, as evidenced by testimony from national security and military experts.
Since the start of the Syrian conflict, the U.S. has accepted about 20,000 Syrian refugees. But a country with 320 million people and the world’s largest economy can resettle many more.
However, the reality is that even if the U.S. dramatically increases resettlement, the size and scope of the Syrian crisis requires much more than just American involvement. Therefore, the U.S. must provide support—from funding to expertise on processing—to the frontline countries in the region that are hosting the highest number of refugees.
Nearly four million Syrian refugees have resettled in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Ensuring that those countries have the resources needed to effectively resettle and integrate refugees is paramount to the wellbeing of our allies’ economies and societies, and to helping refugees rebuild their lives. Increased cooperation and coordination with those nations is crucial, especially regarding investments in education for Syrian youth that have missed school.
President Trump must also protect funding for the various United Nations organizations—including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—that work on issues of displacement, humanitarian relief, and food aid.
These organizations handle the bulk of the work in processing refugee applications that are eventually referred to other nations for resettlement. Their on-the-ground work in the region is absolutely imperative for a well-functioning global refugee system.
Moreover, the U.S. should call upon other nations to increase their resettlement capacity and provide funding to humanitarian entities. If we’re serious about helping innocent people in Syria, a coalition of countries enhancing their resettlement programs can accomplish a lot, particularly with the direction and leadership of the United States.
When we lead—as we have for decades as the largest resettlement country, and as a donor to humanitarian activities—we can better influence and inspire others to act. The roadblock here is that President Trump’s recent actions and words have damaged our ability to pressure international partners to expand their humanitarian involvement. Calling upon other nations to boldly confront the refugee crisis when the president has eschewed responsibility compromises our leverage and ultimately dampens our ability to tackle this massive problem through collective global action.
Finally, the U.S. should explore innovative ways to further engage the private sector in refugee resettlement and protection.
In its last report to Congress, the State Department wrote, “National and local resettlement agencies in the United States have reported receiving a remarkable number of offers of assistance, including donations of household and personal goods, housing, and willingness to sponsor or befriend refugees.”
We should capitalize on this interest, and can with these potential reforms and ideas:
- Allow for private groups, foundations, and individuals to fund refugees in addition to the government cap;
- Launch a program to match Syrian orphans with parents in the U.S.;
- Offer a special visa to Syrians who want to study at U.S. high schools and universities;
- Study the impact of innovative private sector refugee programs, like those in Connecticut, and scale up programs accordingly;
- Launch a White House kickstarter to fund organizations like UNHCR, Save the Children, and Oxfam;
- Allow Syrian-Americans to bring their family members to the U.S. in an expedited process;
- Create new platforms for wealthy philanthropists and foundations to get more involved in refugee issues;
- Continue expanding the Partnership for Refugees, which empowers companies to get directly involved in helping refugees through financial contributions, the hiring of refugees, or the commitment of in-kind resources, materials, and expertise to improve our refugee system;
- Convene another high-level meeting at the United Nations to further the global dialogue about expanding refugee protection worldwide—and focus on strategies to further leverage private sector interest in resettlement.
It’s entirely possible that President Trump did not choose to strike Syria out of mainly humanitarian concerns. In fact, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said that refugee policy was not discussed “as any part of the deliberations” regarding Syria.
But for the Syrian people, let’s hope the President’s stark change in policy is met with a sharp change in his perspective on refugees and budget priorities.
In an excellent piece for the New York Times, Becca Heller and Jon Finer of the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) conclude that if President Trump’s “newfound outrage is genuine, he should also reverse course on his unconscionable refugee policy.”
Helping displaced people on the run from war and terror—those trying to escape from foes like Assad and ISIS—is not a Republican or Democratic idea or a liberal or conservative issue; it is an American moral imperative. We can safely resettle Syrian refugees while maintaining a laser focus on keeping Americans safe.
If we are striking the Assad regime to protect civilians from genocide and chemical warfare, then we can work harder to offer Syrian civilians a lifeline as refugees somewhere safer than their home.