Why Does the USA Admit So Few Refugees from Syria?


There are more refugees in the world today than at any other time since World War Two. But the total number of refugees around the world that are admitted for resettlement to the USA is near an all time low. And the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the USA since the outbreak of the civil war is shockingly low–fewer than 1,800.

So why has the USA opened its doors to so few Syrians?

The Resettlement Puzzle

When a person becomes a refugee, she has three basic options for the long term. The UN Refugee Agency calls these the three “durable solutions” to a refugee crisis. First, she can voluntarily and safely return home when conditions improve. Second, she can become formally integrated to the country to which she fled, and receive all the legal documentation and protections required to permanently settle there. Finally she can permanently resettle to a third country. The first two options are typically the most popular–the allure of returning home is powerful. The third option is called “resettlement,” and the UNHCR estimates that about 8% of refugees worldwide require third country resettlement. That amounts to about 1.1 million people worldwide this year.

The modern US Refugee Resettlement system was established in 1980 to deal with hundreds of thousands of indochinese displaced by the Vietnam war. That year, the USA resettled over 200,000 people, mostly Vietnamese. Historically, about half of all refugees who are resettled to a third country, are resettled in the USA.

The process is somewhat complex. In general, a refugee must register with the UNHCR, which then submits an application to the US government on the refugee’s behalf.  This is called a referral. And each year, Congress, through the appropriations process, decides on a ceiling of the number of refugees that will be formally admitted to the USA for resettlement. This is based on a quota system. Countries and regions are allocated specific numbers of slots.

The quotas are based only in part on need. Mostly, it’s political: Cubans are considered priority cases, as are Jews in the former Soviet Union, and other persecuted religious minorities from certain countries, like Iran. Some protracted refugee crises also get priority, including Burmese refugees in Thailand and Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. (Indeed Bhutanese are the single largest refugee group to be resettled in the USA in recent years.)

Historically, the USA has been by far the most generous country for refugees seeking to resettle in a third country. But since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the USA has not maintained this track record.

As of mid August,  the UN Refugee Agency submitted 16,286 referrals for Syrian refugees to be resettled in the USA. The US government will end up accepting just 1,800 by the end of September, which marks the end of the US fiscal year. In other words, the USA has only taken in about 10% of the Syrian refugees that the UN asked it to.

Why So Low?

The number of Syrian Refugees admitted for resettlement is so low in part because the global number of refugees admitted to the USA is near an all time low. This is despite the fact that the number of refugees around the world is at an all time high. For FY 15, the ceiling was set to 76,000 refugees. Previous outbreaks of conflict and displacement crises have resulted in an increase in the ceiling, such as the Balkan Crises in the early 1990s. This time, the USA is not being as accommodating.

Source: Migration Policy Institute
Source: Migration Policy Institute


One reason for this low ceiling is funding for refugee resettlement in the USA is under constant pressure. Indeed, a proposed budget passed by the US Senate would slash US funding for refugee assistance by a further $415 million.  On top of that, Syrian refugees seeking resettlement to the USA have even higher burden than others. Syria is still not considered a priority country, despite the fact that there are now over 4 million Syrian refugees worldwide–by far the largest refugee cohort in the world. Second, Syrian refugees seeking resettlement must undergo extensive background checks, and the USA has virtually no presence on the ground in Syria to carryout those checks. To make matters worse, some members of congress seem to operate under the presumption that Syrians seeking refuge in the USA are terrorists until proven otherwise.

Until now, there has not been any significant political pressure to increase the quota for Syrian refugees in any significant way. In fact, just the opposite has been the case.  That may be changing. Since the image of young Aylan al Kurdi spread across computer screens last week, there has been mounting pressure to increase the number of Syrians admitted to the USA. Yesterday, the National Security Council spokesman announced an unspecified Syrian refugee policy review that could include refugee resettlement. Hillary Clinton has alluded to doing more for refugees and Lindsey Graham called for the USA to dramatically increase the number of Syrian refugees it takes in.  “I don’t see how we can lead the free world and turn our back when people are seeking it,” Graham said. “We should take the Statue of Liberty and tear it down if this is our response as a nation. Just tear it down, because we don’t need it anymore.”

Right now, the Obama administration is planning (pending congressional approval) to increase the quota of Syrians to about 8,000. That’s not enough. The UN Refugee Agency has called on countries to accept 130,000 Syrian refugees for resettlement in 2016. That means for the USA to live up to its historic role of accepting about half of all refugees, it would need to resettle 65,000 Syrians next year, according to the International Rescue Committee.  This would be a dramatic increase, but commensurate with the global need.