Just days after President Donald Trump said he wanted to pull American troops out of Syria, the United States, with the help of France and the United Kingdom, launched airstrikes on three sites in the western side of the country. The operation lasted one night and was meant to both punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for a suspected chemical weapons attack on civilians and prevent such attacks from happening again in the future. Trump wasted little time in declaring “mission accomplished,” but the reality is that it will have little effect on the outcome of the complex Syrian conflict, now in its seventh year with no end in sight. The airstrikes—and Trump’s own justifications for them—exposed the hypocrisy of current U.S. policy toward refugees, specifically those from Syria.
Trump blamed “Animal Assad” for the attack, and Russia and Iran for backing the Syrian president in creating a “humanitarian disaster.” And in deciding how the United States would respond militarily, Trump said at a Cabinet meeting, “We’re talking about humanity. And it can’t be allowed to happen.” It was a rare acknowledgment by Trump of a humanitarian crisis in Syria at the hands of its president, as well as the vulnerable people dying. But if Trump really cared for their safety—or, as he put it, their humanity—there’s another, incredibly easy way to help: he can admit more Syrian refugees into the United States.
That’s hardly happening right now. Since the start of the year, the United States has resettled just 11 refugees from Syria, according to State Department data. Last year, 3,024 were allowed into the United States. And in 2016, the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency, the United States resettled 15,479 Syrian refugees. All of these figures are a drop in the bucket when compared to the 5.6 million Syrians who have fled their country since the start of the war. Most are still in the Middle East with hardly any chance of being resettled to a third country. But still, the United States was just ramping up its Syrian refugee admissions when Trump’s travel ban—implemented in the first week of his presidency in January 2017—shut the door on them.
The travel ban has been through three iterations, each with varying restrictions for refugees and travelers from select countries, most of them majority Muslim. The third ban, for which the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on April 25, does not deal with refugees per se; still, it bars nearly all people from six countries, including Syria. (Chad was removed from the list last month.) Separately, in October, Trump implemented new vetting rules, effectively halting the entry of refugees from 11 countries deemed as “high risk.” Just what that extra vetting entails is unclear, but refugee resettlement groups have blamed it for the very low arrival figures.
Under Trump, the United States has also lowered its annual, overall refugee admissions ceiling from Obama’s high of 85,000 in 2016 to just 45,000. Because of the new restrictions, the actual number of admissions will likely come in closer to 21,000, the International Rescue Committee says.
It’s as if the Trump administration doesn’t believe there’s a refugee crisis — or doesn’t believe the United States has any obligation to take in any refugees. Still, there’s at least some acknowledgment by administration officials of their suffering. Defense Secretary James Mattis recently told the House Armed Services Committee, “I’ve seen refugees from Asia to Europe, Kosovo to Africa. I’ve never seen refugees as traumatized as coming out of Syria. It’s got to end.”
Until that happens, the Trump administration needs to be more transparent about what the new vetting measures entail, so that refugees awaiting approval to come to the United States—a process which can take two years or longer—have some chance at surmounting it. It is also important that the United States grant more visa waivers to refugees, who have already been through a thorough vetting process. The Supreme Court justices on April 25 asked the government’s attorney whether the visa waiver process under the travel ban was little more than “window dressing.” He responded it wasn’t. If that’s true, more refugees should be allowed into the country despite the ban.
Of course, letting in more Syrians will do nothing to end the war. But neither will limited military actions like those Trump took recently. If Trump’s tweets on Syrians’ humanity are to be taken at face value, it’s clear he and other members of the administration feel some responsibility for their welfare. Getting more of them here safely would be a good place to start.
About the author: Tania Karas is the Migration Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. She is a freelance reporter and journalism instructor focusing on global migration and human rights. For the 2015-16 academic year, she was a Fulbright Fellow in Greece covering Europe’s refugee crisis in the context of Greece’s financial crisis. Tania’s work has appeared in Reuters, PRI, Refugees Deeply, IRIN, Foreign Affairs and other outlets. She is a 2011 graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and Master’s candidate in international human rights law at the University of Oxford.