Of 2.3 Million Syrians Displaced By Civil War, 45 Found Home In U.S.

Audie Cornish talks to Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard about the United States' role in resettling Syrian refugees.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. And we begin this hour with a number, 45. It's for our series Number of the Year where we explore the biggest stories of 2013 through numbers. What's 45? It's how many Syrians were accepted as refugees into the United States this year, a tiny number compared to the some 2.3 million people who've been displaced by the fighting in Syria.

To understand why it's not far larger or zero, we turn to Anne Richard. She's the assistant secretary of state for population refugees and migration. Anne Richard, welcome to the program.

ANNE RICHARD: Thanks for having me on.

CORNISH: So first, these 45 people, these refugees, are they from the current conflict in Syria or from before that?

RICHARD: These refugees who've come to the United States this year from Syria are from before that, and many of the people who have been displaced in the region now have come out of Syria just in the last year and a half, two years.

CORNISH: And talk a little bit about that process then because the U.S. number is so small.

RICHARD: Well, it takes a long time before refugees resettled in a new country. Generally, the best hope for a refugee who flees to a neighboring country is that they will be able to go home. And certainly last summer, a year ago summer, that was our hope for the Syrians pouring out of Syria.

But as we know, the conflict continues. It's become quite an ugly situation, but it would be premature to start bringing lots and lots of the Syrians to the U.S. right now.

CORNISH: And the U.N. refugee program has recently called on resettlement countries - the U.S., Germany, Sweden, Canada - to absorb upwards of 30,000 Syrians by the end of 2014. Germany has already pledged to take 5,000 of those. So where does the U.S. fit into that equation?

RICHARD: Germany had agreed to take 5,000. They've since doubled that offer and offered to take 10,000. Austria, 500, France, 500. I think that the U.N. Refugee Agency knows that the U.S. will take the lion's share of the refugees that they resettle because that is what we do year in and year out with the world's refugees.

CORNISH: Is it any more difficult or trickier for Syrians that citizens of other countries to get refugee status in the United States? We've heard advocacy groups talk this issue of rigorous security screening given some of the rules post 9/11.

RICHARD: Well, we have two responsibilities, the State Department working with the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services. One is to the refugees. We feel that we ought to respect this American tradition and offer sanctuary to a fraction of the world's refugees who need a new home.

But our other responsibility is to American citizens to protect our borders. Most refugees are not a threat to American citizens, but we have to go through a process to make sure we screen out anyone who would have bad intentions.

CORNISH: And just to make that clear, I'm referring to the Patriot Act, which essentially bars members of armed rebel groups or people who have given them material support - shelter, money, transport - that sort of thing.

RICHARD: Well, there's - we have the law in the Patriot Act that bars bringing to America people who have been involved in these armed uprisings unless they get a waiver, unless there's some reason that Congress determines that these folks were allied with the U.S. and should be let in.

And so we don't have that yet for the Syrians and we would have to look carefully at who we were bringing and what their motivations for coming. Most refugees come to the United States are fleeing persecution or threats of death or persecution based on their ethnicity or their religious beliefs or their political beliefs.

So in this case, people are fleeing this very nasty war and most of the refugees I've met are women and children and innocent civilians and many of them would qualify to come to the United States.

CORNISH: Anne Richard, at this point, we mentioned that number, 45, as the number of Syrians who were accepted as refugees in the United States this year. Can you tell us, what is the number that the U.S. has committed to going forward?

RICHARD: Well, part of it depends on U.N. refugee agency, how many they refer to us. I think they intend to refer several thousand. But they count on us, year in and year out, to take the lion's share of the refugees they do refer. And so I think they have confidence that we will continue to do that in the coming year, including for the Syrians.

There are 27 other countries that take refugees. We take more than all of them combined.

CORNISH: Anne Richard, she's the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

RICHARD: Thank you very much.

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