U.S. to Refugees: (Some of) You Are Welcome Here

As Germany absorbs as many as 800,000 migrants, the U.S. draws criticism for accepting far fewer displaced Syrians.
A young Syrian boy and his father wait to board an Austria-bound train in Hungary. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Sep 8, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

As the number of refugees fleeing war and persecution in the Middle East and Northern Africa continues to rise, the response has largely focused on the European Union’s rocky resettlement plan. It’s tempting to believe that the problem is strictly Europe’s as observers an ocean away watch the countries squabble over how many migrants each will absorb.

Though the vast majority of refugees are arriving on European shores, the mass migration is a global humanitarian crisis, and a critical eye has increasingly fallen on the U.S.’s tentative offer to accept just 1,500 refugees as displaced Syrians—there are between nine and 12 million—search for a new place to call home.

"The U.S. could and should be doing more. The silence of the White House on this is unacceptable," Michelle Brané of the Women's Refugee Commission told Reuters.

Germany can reasonably accept 500,000 asylum seekers per year, according to the country’s vice chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel. This year Germany, which is the main destination for asylum seekers, is on track to receive as many as 800,000. The population of the U.S. is nearly four times that of Germany’s, making the Obama administration’s offer look paltry in comparison.

“If Germany—a country with one-fourth our population—can accept 800,000 refugees this year, certainly we—the nation of immigrants and refugees—can do more,” former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley told The Guardian in a survey of 2016 presidential candidates’ views on the refugee crisis. He was the only candidate who definitively said the U.S. should take in more refugees.

Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have received more than 1 million Syrian refugees, with Turkey absorbing more than any other country. Persian Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have not accepted any refugees, attracting criticism from human rights organizations.

National security concerns—or perhaps, anti-Islam sentiment—appears to be a driving force behind resistance in the U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chair of the Homeland Security Committee, wrote a letter to President Obama in June cautioning him against accepting an influx of Syrians. “While we have a proud history of welcoming refugees, the Syrian conflict is a unique case requiring heightened vigilance and scrutiny," wrote McCaul. The conflict "represents the single largest convergence of Islamist terrorists in history," he added.

Obama has not yet announced the number of refugees the U.S. will admit in 2016—a number that he can set after consultation with members of Congress and various federal agencies. The 2015 cap is 70,000 refugees worldwide—1,000 of that total have come from Syria so far. The United Nations has called on countries including the U.S. to accept as many as 100,000 refugees by the end of the year. In May, 14 Senate Democrats urged Obama to allow 65,000 Syrians to resettle in the U.S. Since 2012, the U.S. has spent more than $4.1 billion on humanitarian aid to Syria.

The lifeless body of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach—one of many children and adults who’ve lost their lives on the journey to Europe—shocked the consciences of onlookers worldwide. A petition to the White House urging the administration to accept “at least 65,000 Syrians by 2016” had garnered more than 48,000 signatures as of Tuesday.