In the weeks after February’s earthquake, thousands of aftershocks have added to the death toll and devastation in Turkey and Syria. More than 50,000 lives have been lost. This is only the most recent crisis to hit Syria. The Syrian refugee crisis has been critical since 2011.
The majority of the earthquake’s casualties occurred in Turkey but more than 6,000 have died in Syria and more than 5.3 million may be homeless because of the 7.8 magnitude tremor, according to the United Nations.
As the world continues to witness an influx of international humanitarian aid, Syrians need another kind of rescue. Many need to be resettled in countries where they can rebuild their lives.
The Brookings Institute reports that more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees relocated to Turkey before the earthquake and they are now struggling with the destruction there. Other reports show Turkey had been host to more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees, most of them concentrated in the south near the earthquake’s epicenter. More than 4 million people in northwestern Syria have been relying on humanitarian aid for nearly a decade, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a recent speech.
Syrians remain the largest single group among the world’s 27.1 million refugees. Their resettlement rate in the United States has been low since the start of the war in 2011—only 28,000, less than four percent of total admissions.
To his credit, President Joe Biden moved last month to revive private sponsorship, a form of resettlement that was successfully employed in the U.S. until the Refugee Act of 1980 replaced it. His most recent comments on the Turkey-Syria earthquake and the rising death toll are that he is “deeply saddened,” but he made no mention of refugees eager to relocate to America.
In January, before the earthquake, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced the formation of the Welcome Corps, which builds on the public/private partnerships that have been tested with evacuees from Afghanistan and refugees from Ukraine.
It’s time for the U.S. to prioritize Syrians trapped in Turkey and Syria.
Before the earthquake, there were 29,000 desperate Syrians seeking relocation in the U.S. who are either fully vetted or well along in the process. However, they have been left in limbo for years following the near complete shutdown of refugee—especially Muslim refugee—admissions under the previous administration.
The U.S. is home to about 90,000 Syrian immigrants, not counting those resettled after fleeing the 11-year war. As a group they are highly educated. The majority work in high skill occupations and Syrians have the highest income of any foreign-born group. As such, they are well-positioned to provide the kind of social and economic support that the Welcome Corps envisions.
The Oscar-winning actor, F. Murray Abraham, who most recently starred in HBO’s The White Lotus series, is of Syrian descent and is a spokesperson for the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. Abraham said: “Because it’s difficult for Syrian refugees to be allowed into America, my relatives, whose doors are open to them, are helpless.”
A 2017 Harvard Law School report makes the case that admitting more Syrian refugees serves U.S. national security interests. It increases leverage in the Middle East and enhances cooperation in the region—especially from Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, all of which host American military bases.
Those three countries, along with Lebanon, are carrying a disproportionate share of the burden of Syrian refugees. For the sake of their stability, the U.S. needs to reduce that burden. Turkey had been threatening to open the floodgates and release hundreds of thousands of its Syrian refugees into Europe in order to extort concessions from the European Union.
Even before the enormous devastation of the earthquake, Syrian refugees were under increased pressure to be deported from Turkey. The same is true for Jordan and Lebanon, where there was pressure to push Syrians back into Syria as both countries face serious economic crises and citizen backlash.
With economic downturns throughout Europe as a result of the pandemic and the Russian war against Ukraine, it has become more difficult for Syrians to get a permanent foothold on that continent.
The U.S. must step up.
The stability of Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon can be an antidote to extremism. Resettling more Syrian refugees demonstrates that the U.S. is not hostile to Muslim-majority countries. Stability and embracing Muslim refugees undercuts the ability of terrorists to recruit.
One solution can be with the newly-established Welcome Corps, a plan addressing the five elements of successful integration: housing, employment, language, education and trauma treatment. Private citizens and civil society organizations finance and onboard newly-resettled refugees. By helping them find housing and work, enrolling their children in schools and teaching them English, they can greatly expand the support available for newcomers.
California, Michigan, Texas, Arizona, and Pennsylvania are the states with the most resettled refugees. Except for Michigan, these states have among the highest unemployment rates. Other states including Idaho, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Utah and Nebraska have unemployment rates of three percent and under.
In those places that have welcomed the most refugees, there’s a gap between needs and services—such as affordable housing. California, Texas and Arizona, among the states with the most refugees, are also among those with the largest housing shortages. But some, like Mississippi, can potentially provide refugees with locations where more housing is available, making integration smoother.
The deadly earthquake in Syria and Turkey requires U.S. administrators, policy makers and leaders of private entities to do more. They need to welcome more refugees from that region to America quickly and humanely.