Hannah Purkey is an intern with the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh. Her post below discusses the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S.
The increasing unrest in Syria has been a topic of nonstop debate and discussion throughout the past several months. Due to civil war conflict and the spread of ISIS over the last four years, an estimated 9 million citizens have been displaced within Syria and neighboring countries. Of those, about 2 million refugees are currently in Turkey, 1.1 million in Lebanon and about 650,000 in Jordan. Europe is also one of the most sought after areas for refugees from Syria, due to its proximity and its more lax policies than the United States.
Why has the United States accepted so few Syrian refugees? In a recent interview with Anne Richard, the Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration for the Department of State, she explained that this lack is due mostly to the complexity of the refugee resettlement process in the United States. The refugee resettlement process has become far more difficult post 9/11 because there are numerous screening processes refugees will have to undergo before being allowed entry. These processes include a questionnaire about their intentions for living in the U.S., a medical screening, a security clearance, and cultural orientation procedures. To complete all of these steps, this process can take up to two years or longer.
Richard explained that despite the barriers that make the refugee resettlement process in the United States more difficult, the U.S. has, in fact, accepted thousands of refugees from all over the world over the last few years. She states that this number is around 70,000 for the past three years, more than 70% of the world’s total. Additionally, since the policies are so restrictive in the United States, the U.S. remains a leading provider of assistance to refugees in other countries all over the world.
Despite this, the number of specifically Syrian refugees who have been admitted to the United States is shockingly low. Since 2012, only slightly over 2,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the United States. Nine voluntary agencies, including the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Church World Service, and World Relief Corporation have placed refugees in cities ranging from large to medium-sized cities throughout the U.S. Some of these have included Houston, Boise, and Louisville.
While the United States faced increased international pressure to accept more refugees in general, the Obama administration has recently decided to increase the overall number of refugees in 2016 to 85,000 and by 2017, has planned to increase to 100,000- a total increase of 30,000 from past years. Unfortunately, this is still a mere fraction of the number of refugees that European countries have accepted.
Both Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh, specifically, have declared that they will make a push to accept more refugees. In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf recently announced that his administration believes it can handle an additional 10,000 refugees from Syria. This announcement comes at a time when 30 governors declared they will be shutting their doors to refugees.
In addition, mayors of 18 cities who are all part of the Cities United for Immigration Action coalition, have signed documentation stating they are willing to accept more refugees. Mayor Peduto has been one of the strongest supporters of accepting higher numbers, stating that he would allow up to 500 refugees to come to Pittsburgh. He explained, “Aside from the humanitarian side, which all world religions know, we need to accept these refugees. We have a situation that, if we don’t do something, it’s only going to escalate and get worse.”
Since his announcement this past fall, Peduto’s security has been tightened as many people have expressed anger with his decision. Many others, however, agree with Peduto’s powerful statements. He believes Americans “have to fight for the principles of democracy…which other people look towards as a place where they can escape the hell they live in.”
In Pittsburgh, there are only a few centers that offer refugee resettlement programs, including the Jewish Family and Children’s Services, Catholic Charities Diocese of Pittsburgh, and the South Hills Interfaith Ministries. The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh is also trying to attain the necessary approval to be considered a refugee resettlement program as well. Since there are only a few organizations in Pittsburgh able to resettle refugees, several other organizations offer essential tools to help refugees adjust to their lives in Pittsburgh. For example, the Squirrel Hill Health Center offers initial health screenings and ongoing, integrated care regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay. The Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council also offers classes in conversational English reading, listening and writing skills, as well as computer skills training.
The moves to resettle refugees in Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh, specifically have come at a high-profile time when many politicians have spoken out vehemently opposing these measures, citing national security concerns. Recently, Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott proposed initiating a ban on allowing several Syrian refugees families with young children to arrive in Dallas and Houston in December. This move was rejected by a federal judge, who declared that the governor had little evidence to show that the families posed a threat to the community.
As of now, the future of refugee resettlement and acceptance of Syrian refugees into the United States is up in the air. Arguments exist on both sides of the issue and politicians remain in a gridlock for a final decision. With the presidential elections looming within the next year, hopefully a consensus will be reached that will be appropriate for all parties involved.