Conflict in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, has caused millions of Syrian citizens to flee their home country in search of refuge in European countries and in the United States. Since 2011, over 250,000 Syrians have been killed in the clash between those who support President Bashar al-Assad, those who want to see him leave his position and jihadist groups including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Nationwide protests beginning in 2011 in support of ousting President Assad became violent when the government began using force in order to suppress the uprising. The violence escalated until the country was engulfed in a civil war. The United Nations estimated that by June 2013, approximately 90,000 people had been killed in the conflict, with that number rising to 141,000 less than a year later.
Further complicating matters is the fact of the UN finding that both sides have been using tactics that fall under the description of war crimes and human rights violations. However, the UN also cites that the government has specifically targeted civilian gatherings. In 2013, the nerve gas sarin was used. The tumultuous course of the country’s civil war attracted other groups to become engaged. The UN has accused ISIL of war crimes, including public executions and amputations of those who refuse to conform to their beliefs. The use of a sulfur mustard gas in northern Syria has also been linked to ISIL.
Over 12 million Syrians have fled their country due to the civil war, with only four million of those Syrians having received refugee status. They have mainly fled northward towards the countries in the European Union (EU) and including Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The sudden number of Syrians seeking refuge in European countries has caused the refugees to create camps in these cities. The camps usually lack any form of sanitation and food is scarce. Many citizens of Lebanon, a country with one the greatest numbers of Syrian refugees, have voiced concerns about how the refugees might be driving down wages and increasing housing prices, prompting many EU countries to consider imposing restrictions on the refugees. These countries have attempted to halt the influx of refugees into the country, even going so far as to implement a cap on how many migrants can enter the country per day.
“One in four people in Lebanon now is a refugee. The infrastructure to deal with this influx is now pushed to its breaking point,” said Brian Hansford, the UN’s high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) office in Washington D.C.
Hansford reiterated in his interview with National Public Radio that the Syrian refugee crisis is not relegated to the surrounding countries; this is a “global problem.” The UN has specific protocols that impose legal obligations on countries to accept Syrian refugees. The 1951 UN Refugee Convention outlined what the term refugee means to the UN and created rules determining which individuals do and do not qualify for asylum in countries that adopted the treaty. The Convention and subsequently the UNHCR states that countries which accept refugees are not to violate the refugees’ rights to housing, education, religion and public assistance and states and that the countries are not to punish those refugees who enter the country through illegal channels. Each country can define the pathway through which refugees can gain residence. However, it is against the regulations of the Convention for countries and states to refuse refugees, causing them to return to their countries of origin, which they fled in the first place.
Politicians in the United States have attempted to limit the number of Syrians entering the country and create a more rigorous screening process for refugees. The governors of 27 states have voiced strong opposition to their states accepting any Syrian refugees at all. Many of these lawmakers state the reasons for their state’s restrictions as taking a brief period of pause because of the recent terror attacks by ISIL in Paris, France while also stating that this is the better option in order to maintain safety within the US.
Many have raised problems with this logic, citing that the process for applying for refugee status in the U.S. can take up to two years and many background checks of applicants and their friends and family in their home countries. Three democratic contenders for the presidency, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley have all openly supported the U.S. accepting of Syrian refugees. Sanders said in a campaign speech that the U.S. needs to accept its responsibilities by helping the refugees. These politicians and others that support Syrian refugees having asylum in the U.S. say that refusing these refugees may be exactly what organizations such as ISIL wants. ISIL has released videos and statements urging the world’s Muslims to come to ISIL-controlled areas. By refusing Syrian refugees, as supporters argue, the US enables ISIL to control more of Syria’s population, potentially allowing the organization to grow stronger and oppress more and more citizens.
The U.S. is the largest contributor of funds to the Syrian crisis, with over $4 billion in humanitarian aid since the crisis began and over $1 billion in this year alone. However, President Barack Obama has openly said he would refuse and subsequently veto any bill that passed through Congress that limited or restricted Syrian refugees’ ability to come into the U.S.