United States / Refugees

Responding to Syria Through US Refugee History

Since its founding, America has in part based its identity on being a country of immigrants. However, it has strayed from its roots – the people are no longer asking troubled states to “give [us] your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.” In recent years, attitudes towards immigrants, including refugees, have become increasingly negative. At the peak of the Syrian crisis, mainstream news sources described “hordes” of refugees, who they often chose to call migrants, flowing through Europe. Some say we can’t afford to take refugees due to economic and cultural problems, while others say we aren’t taking nearly enough. Either way, it is important to consider America’s long history of assisting refugees in times of crisis.

The United States has resettled more than three million refugees since 1975 into communities across the country. The Refugee Act of 1980 established a consistent and uniform system for the admission and resettlement of refugees in America in response to the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees after the fall of Vietnam in 1975. Before this, refugees were dealt with on a case-by-case basis as US immigration policy started differentiating them from immigrants. Since then, the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement has managed this process of resettlement in addition to providing states and nonprofits with funds to assist new refugees.

Photo by National Archives Catalog/Unknown

Photo by National Archives Catalog/Unknown

For the first three months after a refugee’s arrival, the Department of State’s Reception and Placement program assumes responsibility through nine domestic resettlement agencies. After this, they are supported through the Refugee Resettlement program, which allocates money to states and organizations for providing services and assistance to refugees. The U.S. government places refugees into a total of 190 communities across the country, based on available resources and support. According to the Department of State, refugees were placed in all fifty states in 2014, the majority in Texas, California, Michigan, and New York. Most of these refugees were from Iraq, Somalis, Bhutan, and Burma, which follows the general trends of refugees in the United States from the past ten years.

Photo by European Commission DG Echo

Photo by European Commission DG Echo

Historically, the United States has been very successful in accepting refugees from areas experiencing crisis and there are a number of thriving refugee communities across the country. America regularly receives one of the highest amounts of asylum applications. Since the Refugee Act of 1980, the number of asylum seekers annually has ranged from a low of around 30,000 to a high of 200,000. The peak of U.S. refugee resettlement was after the Vietnam War when they evacuated 125,000 Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon, most of who settled in California. Over the past two decades, however, the list of countries sending the most refugees to America barely correlates to the countries producing the most refugees worldwide. While the U.S. has accepted the most refugees from the former Soviet Union, Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq, and Myanmar (formerly Burma), according to data from the United Nations the largest refugee groups around the world include Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Liberia, in addition to Iraq and former Yugoslavia. America has set a precedent of not assisting the most major crises, and merely taking refugees when they see fit, but there is a great potential for positive change in the wake of current refugee needs.

The Syrian crisis is easily the largest single producer of refugees in recent history; the number of Syrian refugees today is almost as high as the refugees from the entire continent of Africa in 1992–the height of civil strife in Rwanda and Somalia. In 2014, the United Nations announced that the number of global refugees was the highest since World War II, and the recent growth has mainly been due to the Syrian crisis. Violence from the Syrian Civil War has displaced half of all Syrians, with more than four million registered refugees abroad. Most are living in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, but increasing numbers are seeking asylum in Europe. The United States has resettled approximately 1,500 since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, and President Barack Obama has pledged to accept 10,000 in the next fiscal year. In comparison, some estimates have 1.5 million Syrians entering Germany, the largest European recipient of asylum applications, in 2015. With the relative geographical, population, and economic scale of America compared to other countries inundated with refugees, there is no excuse to limit refugee admissions so severely.

If the United States wishes to make a meaningful impact on the millions of people currently seeking refuge, the current system and attitudes are not sustainable. The current institutions around refugee acceptance and resettlement may have worked for smaller crises like Vietnam and Afghanistan, but at this point the scale needs to be increased from helping tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands if we even want to make a dent. We must adjust our attitudes and make an effort to solve problems, beyond merely maintaining our reputation as a savior nation. We can, and should, do more.