U.S. Called On To Do More For Syrian Refugees

While diplomats prepare for next week's Syria peace conference, refugee officials warn there may not be a political settlement that allows all the millions of displaced Syrians to return to their homeland. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees wants the world community to take in some 30,000 Syrians. Renee Montagne discusses U.S. refugee policy with Sharon Waxman, vice president of the New York-based International Rescue Committee.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Among those calling for the U.S. to take in more Syrian refugees is the International Rescue Committee.

SHARON WAXMAN: Enabling people to go home and rebuild their lives is always the first, second and third priority. But in many cases, there are Syrians - as there have been in other civil war situations - who will not be able to return home.

MONTAGNE: That's the group's vice president for public policy, Sharon Waxman. Her group says the U.S. could comfortably accept thousands more Syrians fleeing that civil war.

WAXMAN: The vast majority of assistance from the United States has been on the humanitarian resources side - more than $1.4 billion - which has been enormous and very significant in helping to relieve the suffering on the ground. The numbers are huge. You've heard them earlier, in the earlier piece. It is six-and-a-half million people displaced inside Syria, more than two million refugees that have fled the borders and are putting an enormous, enormous strain on countries across the region.

MONTAGNE: And yet other countries both in Europe and the U.S. are not really taking a sizable number of Syrian refugees. How many has the U.S. taken in so far?

WAXMAN: Less than 100. The United Nations refugee commissioner has recently called on the international community to begin a resettlement program. The number they're starting with is small. It's 30,000 people. We're calling on the United States to make a down payment, if you will, and start with resettling 12,000 of those this year, and then increasing the numbers in the out years.

MONTAGNE: Would you be at all concerned that letting in thousands of refugees from this particular civil war will also allow in bad actors?

WAXMAN: Well, it goes without saying that the United States has an obligation to protect the homeland and make sure that those people who are coming into the country don't pose a threat to the national security. You know, at the same time, there are a lot of procedures, rules and regulations in place that can enable us to screen out those bad actors and enable in the vast majority who really do need relief from persecution.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. Why has the U.S. been reluctant to accept Syrian refugees so far?

WAXMAN: We don't specifically know what the issue is. But in the past, there have been cases where - I mean, with an overly broad interpretation of the terrorism laws - where someone who may have given soup, for example, to someone in the opposition would be barred from entry. Should it be a terrorism-related concern, it would be ironic, since on the one hand, the United States government is providing support to some members of the armed opposition, but then on the other, might interpret the law in a way that would preclude their family members from coming to the United States. But we don't know that that's the case.

MONTAGNE: Clearly, this is a tragic situation of epic proportions, but what obligation does the U.S. to allow in Syrians?

WAXMAN: Well, the United States has always been the leader in refugee resettlement. Keep in mind there are more than 14 million refugees across the globe, and less than 1 percent are resettled. This year, for example, the president and Congress have agreed to resettle 70,000 refugees, and it's a question of American leadership and a deep, longstanding commitment to helping those who are feeling persecution.

MONTAGNE: Well, we do know, however, that the U.S. has not allowed in some people that one might say it does have an obligation to translators and those who work for the U.S. in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Very few of them have actually been able to make their way over to this country to be resettled. What do you say to that?

WAXMAN: Well, there is no doubt that Iraqis and Afghans who worked with and alongside the American military and American government do have a special place in this country. And there is an existing program to allow them to come into the United States, and large numbers of Iraqis actually have been settled. In the case of Syrians, those programs don't apply, but we do, obviously, have a longstanding commitment to helping those who are fleeing persecution, and Syrians fit squarely into that commitment.

MONTAGNE: Sharon Waxman is vice president for public policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee. Thank you very much for joining us.

WAXMAN: Thank you very much.

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