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The Syrian Refugee Crisis by the Numbers

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General Overview

 Since 2011, Syria has been plagued by armed conflict waged by multiple factions including the Syrian Government, the Islamic State (ISIS), and numerous rebel groups. The ongoing unrest has increased turmoil in an already tumultuous Middle East, and has sparked a global refugee crisis. Before diving into the numbers of the refugee crisis, it is important to note that, while the present refugee crisis has caused remarkable devastation, this kind of mass displacement and emigration is in no way new; as long as humans have fought in wars, they have also suffered the effects of war.

According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), an agency which organizes refugee resettlement efforts in 128 countries around the world, refugees are defined as “people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are defined and protected in international law, and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk.” Some of the most notable refugee crises in modern history include those resulting from World War II, the 1948 Palestine War, the Vietnam War, the Salvadoran Civil War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the War in Darfur, the War in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War. The present global refugee crisis, exacerbated by the Syrian Civil War, has caused the worldwide population of forcibly displaced people to rise to the highest ever recorded. In June of 2015, the current refugee crisis officially eclipsed that of World War II (UNHCR).

Each day in 2015, 34,000 new people were forcibly displaced from their homes. According to UNHCR, at the end of 2015 approximately 1 in every 122 people (65.3 million) were forcibly displaced; 12.5 million of whom were Syrian, and 10 million of whom were considered “stateless.” Additionally, 21.3 million of the 65.3 million were refugees, over half of whom are under age 18. Currently, top six refugee-hosting countries are: Turkey (2.5 million), Pakistan (1.6 million), Lebanon (1.3 million), the Islamic Republic of Iran (979,400), Ethiopia (739,100), and Jordan (664,100) (UNHCR). Of the global refugee population, 4.3 million are Syrian, 2.7 million are Afghan, and 1.1 million are Somali; these three countries account for 54% of all refugees worldwide.

Paths to Resettlement

Refugees typically face three paths to resettlement: either they flee their home country and get accepted without extensive security checks into another country, they find shelter in a designated refugee camp where they await approval for permanent resettlement, or they resettle in an alternative city within their country of origin (these are technically considered “internally displaced persons” or “IDPs” and are not reflected in the official refugee statistics).

In the context of the Syrian refugee crisis, most who have fled to Middle Eastern or European countries fall into the first category. Because there are only a few official permanent resettlement countries, refugees accepted by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Norway fall into the second category. The millions of families who have fled from war-ravaged cities such as Aleppo and Homs to Damascus or smaller cities fall into the third category.

According to Eurostat, 1,255,640 individuals applied for asylum to European Union

member states, with the majority applying for asylum in Germany (441,800), Hungary (174,400), and Sweden (156,100), with Syrians accounting for 29% of all applications. These applications make up the bulk of the approximately 2.45 million asylum applications filed globally. These numbers represent the volume of displaced persons seeking asylum through traditional, legal channels; they do not, however account for the increasing volume of migrants traveling to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea. According to Eurostat, 1,015,078 migrants arrived in Europe by sea in 2015. A plurality of these migrants travelled from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The vast majority of those traveling by sea crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey into Greece; many others traveled across the Mediterranean from Libya into Italy. The majority of these migrants were adult males; however, approximately a quarter of the migrants were children, many of whom were unaccompanied or separated from their parents. In total, 3,771 migrants were reported dead or missing at sea in 2015. In response to the dramatic increase in arrivals by sea, many European nations have implemented stricter border controls and invested in border fences. Additionally, a number of European nations have placed restrictions on their asylum application processes.

Of Syrians awaiting permanent resettlement in first-world countries, the majority live in designated refugee camps along the Turkish border or in neighboring Jordan or Lebanon. The largest of these camps was established in 2012 in Zaatari, Jordan, and houses more than 77,000 occupants. In these refugee camps, UNHCR agents work with representatives from various nations to organize resettlement on a case-by-case basis. While stays in refugee camps are intended to be temporary, the reality for many refugees (such as BC High custodian Kundar) is that in they can spend up to 12 years or more awaiting resettlement. Every year, thousands of children grow up in refugee camps never knowing life outside of a tent city. Of nearly 16.1 million refugees of concern in 2015, UNHCR only managed to resettle about 1%, approximately 160,000.

According to UNHCR, as of December 2015, there were 6.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Syria alone, 43% of whom were children. Since 2011, 50 Syrian families have been displaced each hour of every day, making Syria’s displaced population the largest in the world. Every year, violence, human rights violations, and natural/man-made disasters force millions of families to abandon their homes and rebuild their lives elsewhere, and because internally displaced persons remain in their home country and generally do not receive refugee status, they are some of the most vulnerable people in the world. Since there are very few programs available to assist them, IDPs are also vulnerable to future displacement.

UNHCR Refugee Vetting

 As the internationally recognized body for refugee resettlement, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees works with partner countries and refugees all over the world to find permanent resettlement. One of UNHCR’s primary responsibilities is to officially approve asylum seekers’ applications for refugee status.

The UNHCR process for vetting asylum seekers is roughly outlined as follows:

  • Asylum seekers go to UNHCR offices and receive the necessary information and support for their refugee applications.
  • The most vulnerable asylum seekers are identified, and applicants receive an individual refugee status determination (RSD) interview with a qualified Eligibility Officer.
  • All vetting procedures must comply with UNHCR standards of confidentiality and of sensitivity towards vulnerability, gender, and age.
  • Rejected applicants can appeal for reevaluation by another Eligibility Officer.
  • Approved applicants receive international refugee status and become eligible to begin the process for permanent resettlement, although it can take years before their resettlement applications begin getting processed.

Each applicant file must include official RSD application forms of the applicant and all family members or dependents also applying for refugee status. The applicant file must also include photographs of all applicants, identification documents and other supporting documents, all notes and memos written by UNHCR staff members, records of UNHCR and third party conversations with the applicant, medical information, records of prior status determinations, UNHCR issued documents, and contact information.

Most UNHCR applications for refugee status occur within designated refugee camps, in which newcomers approach UNHCR representatives in person and apply for refugee status. In certain cases, most notably when migrants cross the Mediterranean seeking refuge in Europe, due to sheer numbers of applicants and the urgency of a situation, it is impossible to go through bureaucratic procedures for every applicant. Therefore, UNHCR will sometimes declare small groups of people refugees without necessarily processing all their paperwork. That being said, all official refugees must have their documentation fully processed before being officially resettled.

How the United States Vets Refugees

 Every year, the United States accepts thousands of refugees for permanent resettlement, but it only accepts refugees who have first been referred by UNHCR. Of those, the US only accepts refugees who clear its multi-step, 18- to 24-month vetting process that makes refugees the most thoroughly vetted people entering the United States, according to the State Department.

The State Department’s vetting process for refugees is outlined as follows:

  • The United Sates receives a referral from UN High Commission on Refugees.
  • The State Department Resettlement Support Center conducts an interview, then verifies and cross-references background information.
  • Security checks begin with multiple organizations including the National Counterterrorism Center, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the State Department, and other intelligence agencies investigating possible security threats, connections to known “bad actors,” and previous immigration and criminal violations.
  • Syrian applicants in particular receive even more extensive reviews by the Department of Homeland Security.
  • If cleared, the Department of Homeland Security conducts another in-person interview with each refugee and collects medical data. The interview verifies the information provided in previous interviews, and more interviews are conducted if information comes to light.
    • If new information arises during interviews, additional security checks are conducted.
    • If inconsistencies are discovered during interviews, the application is placed on hold.
  • Fingerprints are then taken and must clear FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Defense security databases before the process continues.
    • If any problematic results arise, the applicant’s case is denied.
  • Refugee applicants who have reached this point then undergo cultural orientation classes for better integration into American society, and are medically examined to ensure they do not have any diseases that may pose a public health risk.

If cleared, the resettlement process begins as follows:

  • Representatives of the nine US-based resettlement programs meet weekly to assign approved refugees to destinations within the US. Refugees with family or relatives are likely to be resettled near them, otherwise placement is determined by the sponsoring resettlement program.
  • The International Organization for Migration then books a flight, and the refugees undergo standard Customs and Border security checks while in transit.
  • After a process that typically lasts two years, the refugee finally lands in the United States and begins resettlement with one of nine domestic Refugee Resettlement Agencies:
    • Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Ethiopian Community Development Council, Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, US Conference of Catholic Bishops, US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, World Relief Corporation
  • The cost of resettlement transportation is provided as a loan which individuals must begin paying off once they are established in the United States.
  • Upon arrival, refugees apply for a Social Security card, begin paying taxes, enroll children in school, receive temporary housing, and register for language classes.
  • The State Department provides each resettlement agency with a one-time payment per refugee for staff compensation and initial living expenses.
  • The State Department Reception and Placement Program assists newly-arrived refugees for their first three months. Afterwards, the Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement provides long-term resources.
  • Generally, most refugees begin working right away in order to earn money, pay off their debts, and learn English.
  • After one year in the US, resettled refugees are required to apply for green cards (permanent residence cards), and they can chose to apply for citizenship after five years.

In fiscal year 2016 (Sep 2015-Sep 2016), the United States admitted 84,995 refugees. Since the start of the Syrian Civil War, however, the US has admitted fewer than 15,000 Syrian refugees, 12,600 of whom arrived during fiscal year 2016 (Pew Research Center). According to the State Department, since 1975, the US has resettled more than 3.2 million refugees from across the globe.

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The Syrian Refugee Crisis by the Numbers