US admitted just 44 Syrian refugees in last 6 months

As President Donald Trump and his national security team debate their futuret plans for Syria, one element of US poli...

Posted: Apr 19, 2018 6:38 AM
Updated: Apr 19, 2018 6:38 AM

As President Donald Trump and his national security team debate their futuret plans for Syria, one element of US policy is patently clear: The administration is not willing to accept large numbers of Syrian refugees fleeing the brutal civil war in the country.

Since the start of the 2018 fiscal year last October, the US has resettled just 44 Syrian refugees, according to State Department data. That's down from about 6,000 in the same time frame last year, most of whom were admitted before Trump's inauguration.

"The process is a little bit slower because additional vetting mechanisms have been put in place," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert explained to reporters in a briefing Tuesday.

But the stall in refugee resettlement worries refugee advocates, and strikes some lawmakers -- particularly Democrats -- as hypocritical given the recent US strikes against alleged chemical weapons facilities in Syria.

At a congressional hearing on Wednesday, members questioned State Department officials about the policy, suggesting it was inconsistent for the administration to intervene militarily on behalf of Syrians affected by chemical weapons attacks while limiting the resettlement of other vulnerable Syrian civilians caught up in the conflict.

"Doesn't it present a challenge for the world to take us seriously?" asked Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island.

Hans Van de Weerd, vice president of US programs at the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement, "The U.S. cannot bomb Syria in defense of Syrian civilians while doing nothing to help those desperately seeking safety with the chance to rebuild their lives elsewhere."

"More civilians were killed in the Douma chemical weapon attack than have been resettled in the U.S. as refugees this fiscal year," he noted. "If the U.S. really wants to help Syrians, it shouldn't be slamming the door shut."

While the drop in admissions has been dramatic and comes at a critical time in the protracted Syrian conflict, it shouldn't come as a surprise.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump was highly critical of the Obama administration's decision to increase its intake of Syrian refugees, saying terror groups like ISIS could exploit refugee flows to launch attacks on the US homeland.

Then, in the early days of his administration, Trump implemented a travel ban, which included a pause in overall refugee admissions and a near-total moratorium on people coming to the United States from Syria.

The ban was later revised in part and faces ongoing legal challenges in the US court system.

Last fall, the administration announced it would accept no more than 45,000 total refugees in FY2018, the lowest ceiling in decades for the US refugee admission program and fewer than half the number allowed by the Obama administration in its final year.

Since then, the Trump administration has accepted just over 11,000 refugees from nearly 60 countries, including the 44 from Syria.

The administration's stated goal when it comes to Syrian refugees is to help stabilize areas of Syria liberated by ISIS and encourage a political solution to the civil war that will allow the displaced to return to their homes.

It's a principle that Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, alluded to Tuesday when she said that "many refugees would rather stay closer to home than get uprooted and go to Buffalo or Wisconsin."

But administration officials admit that such an outcome depends on world leaders securing a political solution to the civil war, one that would theoretically bring an end to President Bashar al-Assad's rule, and which has evaded the international community for over seven years.

At a speech in California in January in which he called the Syrian refugee situation "a humanitarian crisis," then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged, "there is no way to effectively facilitate a large-scale, safe and voluntary return of refugees without a political solution."

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