U.S. Officials Say Refugee Crisis Set Syria’s Development Back 35 Years

CREDIT: AP Photo/Bilal Hussein

U.S. officials briefing a panel of senators on Tuesday warned that the Syrian refugee crisis has set back the country’s development decades, with one noting the harm the fighting has had on children in particular amounts to “the suicide of Syria.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights subcommittee, opened the hearing from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), detailing the plight that more than two million Syrians displaced from their homes now face. “It is the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian crisis and the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and perhaps since World War II,” Durbin said. “Last year when I visited a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey, I was especially struck by the plight of the children. It is no exaggeration to say that a generation of Syrian children is at risk.”

Officials from the Obama administration agreed largely with that assessment, as over one million Syrian children have fled their homes to date. “This is different in many ways [from previous crises] in that one of the things that has happened, and this was referenced earlier, is we’ve seen a country lose about 35 years of development,” Assistant Secretary of State for Refugees Anne Richard told the panel. “In a sense it’s the suicide of Syria, because the hospitals have been bombed, schools have been bombed, civilians have been killed by the tens of thousands. … I don’t know where the leaders are going to come from if they’re not in school and if their families are torn apart and they’re traumatized from what they’ve witnessed.”

All senators in attendance at the hearing expressed their deep concern over the growing crisis, both for Syrians themselves and the pressures being placed on the region. Even Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), usually known for lobbing rhetorical bombs at the Obama administration, seemed muted during the proceedings, noting that he himself is the son of a Cuban refugee. As ranking member of the subcommittee, Cruz was given ample time to question the officials present about the presence of Al Qaeda and other extremist fighters among refugee populations.

“It’s not large numbers,” Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security Mollie Groom told Cruz, “it’s not a wide problem but it is a real problem and so that’s why I respect your concern that we do everything we can to avoid radicalization and that, also, to make sure that borders are guarded carefully.” Groom added that the vast majority of refugees are law-abiding people caught in harm’s way. “What I fear for, though, is I don’t want Americans to equate refugees with terrorists,” she said. “And they’re not. Refugees here today with us are journalists and scholars and family people.”

Officials were quick to tout the fact that the United States last year came close to meeting its refugee admission target for the first time since 1980, admitting nearly 70,000 into the country. Despite that success, only 36 of those refugees were Syrian, with only a few hundred estimated to be granted entry in the current fiscal year. As Groom explained to the senators present, about 1,300 Syrians have currently applied for asylum status in the United States. Permission to enter the U.S. is then dependent first on an assessment from the UNHCR, she added, followed by the United States’ own rigorous background checks.

Durbin, a key leader on immigration reform, noted that several changes could be put into place to ease the entry of refugees, particularly those blocked on national security grounds. “One issue that needs to be addressed is the overly broad prohibition in our immigration law that excludes any refugee who has provided any kind of support to an army rebel group, even a group we in the United States support,” he lamented. “This would prevent a Syrian who gave a cigarette or sandwich to a free Syrian Army soldier from receiving refugee status in the United States despite the fact that the United States is providing assistance to the Free Syrian Army.” Groom later agreed that many of the changes in S.744, the Senate-passed immigration reform bill, would benefit Syrian refugees attempting to reach the U.S.’ shores.

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) has also been a proponent of immigration reform, but noted that a comprehensive bill was not likely to pass in the near future. Instead, Graham asked the assembled panel members if they would be willing to provide the Appropriations Committee and the Judiciary Committee with a two- to three-year plan for how to change current law to allow for more refugees. He then pressed Richard whether 2014 would be worse or better for Syrians, a question that Richard hesitated to answer.

“I’m giving you an opportunity here to tell us that maybe the worst is yet to come,” a frustrated Graham said, “and prepare members of Congress who are sympathetic with the bill you may send us. So if I were you, I would suggest to take this opportunity to sit down and write out what we may be facing as a nation in terms of our obligations to stabilize the region. that’s all I’m asking.”

“And we very much appreciate that,” Richard responded. “Just to your point, we keep passing the worst case scenario. So we need to be thinking of that. There have already been extraordinary strains on the system. We keep coming up with new ways of addressing it and we will continue to be faced with that pressure and we would very much welcome the opportunity to work with you all further on envisioning what that might take.”

The strain is apparent as the Syrian civil war nears its third anniversary. The United Nations on Tuesday announced that it would no longer release official figures estimating the number killed during the three-year long conflict, as the information coming out of the country could no longer be verified. Meanwhile, the countries surrounding Syria continue to be stretched thin, with Lebanon alone having taken in more than 800,000 Syrians, more than a quarter of their total population. In a record request, the U.N. has called for $6.5 billion in donations from member states to support the 9.5 million Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance, 6.5 million of whom are displaced within the country.