The Syrian Refugee Crisis
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Chairman Durbin, Ranking Member Cruz, and distinguished Senators, thank you for holding this hearing and bringing attention to the tragedy unfolding in the Middle East. Thank you also for the opportunity to appear before your Subcommittee with my colleagues from USAID and the Department of Homeland Security and to update you on the steps we have taken in response to the Syria crisis. My part of this testimony will address the Department of State’s response to the refugee crisis as well as our plans to bring Syrian refugees to the United States for resettlement.
Description of the Crisis
You already know the basic facts of the emergency, which I will briefly summarize: What began as popular protests in spring 2011 evolved into episodic battles between opposition and government forces in certain cities, and then further evolved into a brutal war with many fronts. The conflict has claimed more than 100,000 lives, destroyed buildings and industries, attracted radical foreign fighters, and severely divided Syrian society. For every one person who has been killed, six other people have been injured.
More than six million Syrians have fled their homes but are trying to survive inside Syria in other areas; another 2.3 million have crossed Syria’s borders and thus are considered refugees.
When the refugees first crossed into neighboring countries, many were welcomed and benefited from extraordinary acts of generosity. In Jordan and Lebanon, early refugees lived with friends, relatives and host families. Even after camps and transit centers were instituted in Jordan, the Government allowed refugees to be “bailed out” by friends, relatives and sometimes caring strangers. However, as time has progressed and the number of refugees has increased, the welcome has started to wear thin in some places and antagonism toward refugees has grown in the region. At times, violence from the Syria conflict has spilled across borders into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and has aggravated already-heightened sectarian tensions in Lebanon.
The Government of Turkey estimates that it now hosts more than 700,000 Syrians; more than 200,000 of these refugees live in 21 camps. While photos of Syrian refugees in camps in Turkey or Jordan are often used to illustrate the refugee situation, most refugees in the region – more than 80 percent – do not live in camps and instead have found shelter in local communities and cities.
Refugees are living in more than 1,600 communities across Lebanon. One of these communities is the town of Arsal in northeast Lebanon. Arsal’s 35,000 residents had already welcomed 19,000 refugees when, in mid-November, they suddenly received an additional 20,000 refugees in less than one week who were fleeing new clashes in Syria. As we’ve seen in other communities in Lebanon, the recent influx into Arsal has shifted the delicate demographic balance of the area, a phenomenon that threatens to further exacerbate social tensions. Arsal could not absorb these new refugees into its existing stock of housing, so the Government of Lebanon authorized the United Nations to set up tents for some of the newest arrivals, thus creating Lebanon’s first “formal tented settlement” for Syrian refugees.
The impact on many communities across the region is overwhelming. Schools have moved to double-shifts to accommodate Syrian children. Hospital beds are filled by Syrian patients. Rents have risen and wages have fallen as a result of the competition for housing and jobs. There are water shortages in Jordan and Lebanon. The drain on water resources is especially severe in Jordan due to its relative lack of water; the Government of Jordan is already struggling to cover subsidies for water for Jordanian citizens. The governments of these countries – as well as the Governments of Iraq and Turkey – are concerned that they must stretch the services they provide to their own citizens to reach the overwhelming numbers of vulnerable refugees living in their countries.
According to a World Bank/UN assessment, 170,000 Lebanese are being pushed into poverty by the Syria crisis. Lebanon will likely suffer cumulative economic losses of $7.5 billion by the end of 2014 and a doubling of the unemployment rate to 20 percent. Lebanese government expenditures have increased $1.1 billion due to the increased demand for public services, according to the World Bank/UN assessment. Turkey’s government estimates it has spent more than $2 billion on refugee response. And Jordan has experienced an up to 27 percent increase in the cost of food in the past year.
Challenges to Aid Delivery In Neighboring Countries
Need for Open Borders: We remain concerned that people could be trapped inside Syria, as at times, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq have taken steps to control or slow the inflow of these refugees. We have asked all of the countries neighboring Syria to maintain “open border” policies so that those who need to flee can do so.
Arrival of Winter: This is already starting out to be a rough winter with bad flooding and farmers in Lebanon predicting the coldest in 100 years. The UN agencies and NGOs we fund are insulating tents, providing heaters and heating fuel, and distributing warmer clothes and plastic sheeting.
Services for Urban Refugees: Urban refugees are often invisible and dispersed among local people in poor communities. It can be difficult to identify them, particularly those who are most vulnerable. In Turkey, for example, more than 70 percent of Syrians are living outside camps, and many are unregistered. Most are without needed assistance and services, and their needs are mounting in the cold winter months as their stay away from home grows longer and longer.
Gender-Based Violence: We are very concerned by reports of gender-based violence (GBV) among refugees. At the State Department, we are working closely with humanitarian organizations to increase protection for vulnerable refugees by meeting their basic needs for shelter, food, clothing, water and sanitation, and healthcare. We are supporting specialized programs aimed at preventing and responding to violence, including medical and counseling services for rape survivors, safe learning and healing spaces for children – particularly girls – and efforts to raise awareness about the risks of urgent issues like early marriage.
Refugee Children Not in School: There are over 1.1 million Syrian refugee children in the region, of whom 60 percent are not in school. Taking a lesson from the Iraqi refugee emergency, we are working with governments to avoid to the extent possible parallel service provision, and to find creative solutions to get as many children as possible back in school, whether in the formal education system or in community-based learning programs.
Responding to the Needs of Refugees and Host Communities
The State Department and USAID are major funders of the top humanitarian organizations responding to the crisis in Syria and the region, providing over $1.3 billion in assistance to date. In an attachment to this testimony, I provide a summary of the multi-faceted response that has been mounted by UN agencies and NGOs working with U.S. support, including the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the World Food Program (WFP), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Together, these agencies and others are providing food, clean water, shelter, medical care and other basic essentials. They also go beyond these basic needs and seek to protect the most vulnerable members of Syrian society today – displaced children, at-risk women and girls, the elderly and the disabled – from threats as diverse as cold winters, unsafe play areas, poor sanitation, child marriage and violence against women and girls.
The United States Government and the wider international community must support the neighboring countries as they respond to the Syria crisis. Neighboring countries are providing asylum for refugees. They are also the logical place from which to send assistance into Syria. I was recently in Erbil in Northern Iraq at the start of the UN airlifts of assistance from Erbil to Qamishly. While the airlifts were successful, it would be even better – and certainly more cost-effective – for the UN and others to be able to truck aid in to Qamishly as had been promised by the Syrian regime several weeks ago in response to the PRST. In order to support their efforts, we not only provide assistance to help these countries but also encourage other donors, particularly wealthy governments that have not traditionally given to humanitarian agencies, to step up their contributions. But the victims of Syria’s violence and their hosts need much more. The latest UN plan aims to do more to help neighboring countries by boosting the resilience of local communities to withstand the effects of taking in so many refugees. This requires continued efforts to ensure that relief operations and longer-term development projects are carried out at the same time and are well coordinated.
Lebanon continues to keep its borders mostly open and is now hosting the largest numbers of refugees in the smallest country in the region. Refugees from Syria now make up 20 percent of the population in Lebanon, on top of the 400,000 Palestinian refugees that Lebanon has hosted for decades. Lebanon has opened its hospitals, clinics, and schools to refugees and is struggling to cope with the strain on its public services. The U.S. government continues to support Lebanon through emergency response and longer-term development assistance. USAID is working to improve the lives of Lebanese citizens and their communities by enhancing economic opportunity, increasing access to education, improving water and wastewater services, strengthening civil society and municipalities and protecting the environment. At the meeting of the International Support Group for Lebanon held at the UN in September, Secretary Kerry announced plans to provide an additional $30 million in direct assistance for growing needs in Lebanon’s host communities.
Since 2012, the United States has provided $300 million in bilateral budget support to the Government of Jordan, on top of our annual budget support, specifically to offset spending Jordan has devoted to hosting refugees from Syria. We have also provided over $30 million to help alleviate strains on the water and education systems. USAID has built five new schools in northern Jordan and is expanding 67 existing schools. It is also supporting a water program focused on water collection, storage, conservation and the repair of water pipelines in communities in northern Jordan hosting a large number of refugees. New programs have also been launched to help community members, parents and schools cope with tensions between Syrians and Jordanians. WFP vouchers are used by refugees to buy food from merchants, thus providing another benefit directly to local people. The United States also provided a $1.25 billion sovereign loan guarantee to help Jordan respond to external pressures, like the Syria crisis, while it continues its economic reform program.
The United States has provided more than $96 million through international organizations and NGOs to support the Government of Turkey in its humanitarian response. Our assistance has funded tents, blankets, cash cards for food, cook stoves, schools, education supplies, teacher training, technical assistance and more. We have provided $70 million for programs to help refugees in Iraq, and I was in Erbil in mid-December when UN relief flights began to operate between that Iraqi city and Quamishly in Northern Syria.
On December 16, the UN issued new funding appeals for 2014 totaling $6.5 billion for 2014. The appeals will respond to the immediate humanitarian needs of those inside Syria and refugees in the region and look at ways the humanitarian community can address some immediate needs in the refugee-hosting communities to strengthen local service delivery and resilience. The UN has worked to make the appeals cost-efficient and high impact, as well to provide benchmarks to help donors track progress of the refugee response. We are reviewing the appeals now and discussing with partners and other donors the best ways to support these efforts.
As we try to meet immediate basic needs for those fleeing the conflict, we must also work toward more lasting solutions to their plight.
The U.S. Worldwide Refugee Admissions Program
The United States continues to lead the world in refugee resettlement, resettling more than 75 percent of refugees referred by UNHCR to resettlement countries in 2012, and we fully expect to be able to bring Syrian refugees to America as part of this program. Before discussing our specific plans, it is worth a look back at our recent record in resettling refugees, especially given the Judiciary Committee’s responsibilities related to authorizing this program
After two years of relatively low numbers of refugee arrivals, our refugee admissions increased significantly this past fiscal year and we can report that the program is on sound footing.
- In 2013 we met the President’s authorized refugee admissions ceiling – which for FY 2013 was 70,000 – for the first time since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, with refugee arrivals representing 65 different nationalities. Priorities include specific groups of concern, such as Iraqis, Bhutanese, Burmese, and Congolese as well as individual referrals by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), designated NGOs and U.S. Embassies.
- We also were able to bring a quarter of the 70,000 refugees to the United States every three months, which provided a more predictable and consistent flow of refugee arrivals throughout the year. This helped our local resettlement agency partners and receiving communities better manage staffing and resources for refugee reception and support.
- We also increased slightly (from $1,875 to $1,925 per capita) the amount of funding provided to our partner agencies to help refugees restart their lives. This is the third time we have increased this funding in the past four years. We do not want to let this funding lag behind while the cost of living increases.
- We took important steps to facilitate the arrival of Iraqi refugees in America by increasing refugee processing staff in Baghdad and establishing a transit mechanism to move Iraqi refugees out of war-torn Syria.
- Senior PRM officials and staff of our admissions office traveled frequently to towns and cities across America to meet with refugees, voluntary agencies, elected officials, employers, and other community leaders to ensure that refugees receive a warm welcome in the places they are resettled.
All of this was accomplished through excellent coordination with the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services and the dedicated work of thousands of people overseas and across the United States who make the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program possible. Local community involvement is a core component of the U.S. refugee resettlement program, and it has played a critical role in helping refugees integrate into our society and rebuild their lives.
We continue to work closely with the Department of Homeland Security and the law enforcement/intelligence community to ensure that refugees entering the United States through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program do not pose a threat to our security. Refugee applicants are subject to more security checks than any other category of traveler to the United States.
For FY 2014, and after consultations with designated members of the Judiciary Committee, the President once again authorized the admission of up to 70,000 refugees. We anticipate continued strong arrivals of Iraqi, Burmese, and Bhutanese refugees. From Africa, we will see continued arrivals of Somali refugees, and expect a steady increase in Congolese refugee arrivals during this fiscal year and in future years as UNHCR increases its referrals of Congolese. UNHCR plans to refer 50,000 Congolese to all resettlement countries over the next five to seven years.
Syrian Refugee Resettlement
All of this is background for our discussion of how the United States is prepared to respond to calls for the resettlement of Syrian refugees. UNHCR has announced that by the end of 2014 it intends to refer up to 30,000 Syrians to resettlement countries for either temporary or permanent resettlement. We expect to accept referrals for several thousand Syrian refugees in 2014. Another 16 other countries have pledged to take part as well and we will encourage them and others to do even more.
Some have asked me why the United States has resettled so few Syrians to date. In fact, it is not unusual for third-country resettlement to play only a limited role in the early years of a conflict. Most of the refugees that the United States has admitted in recent years have been caught up in protracted refugee situations for five, ten or even twenty years. UNHCR has determined, however, that many of the most vulnerable among the Syrian refugees are unlikely to be in a position to return home anytime soon and for this reason resettlement should be part of the international response to the Syrian crisis. We also want to show solidarity with refugee-hosting countries in the region. In my travels to the region, government officials from neighboring countries have made clear that they would like to see other countries share the task of hosting refugees.
So far, UNHCR has largely focused its efforts on referrals of Syrians for temporary resettlement via a “Humanitarian Admissions Program.” To date, Germany, Austria and France have agreed to participate in this program. Germany has pledged 10,000 spaces, and Austria and France have each offered 500 spaces.
UNHCR has also recently referred about 1,000 Syrian refugees for permanent resettlement, to several other countries including Sweden, Switzerland and Norway. They asked for referrals (and some arrivals) by the end of 2013. UNHCR is training and placing additional staff in the region in order to refer more refugees. We will work with UNHCR to identify those Syrian refugees who are among the most vulnerable and refer them for resettlement. Vulnerable refugees would likely include women and girls at risk, survivors of violence and torture, those with medical needs or disabilities, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender refugees at risk and refugees in need of family reunification. Syrians being considered for U.S. refugee resettlement will, of course, undergo intensive security screening – the same screening carried out for all refugees seeking to resettle in the United States.
Looking ahead, many of the nations concerned about the situation in Syria will come together in January. Kuwait again plans to co-host a pledging conference with the United Nations scheduled for January 15, 2014. With your support, the United States should again be in a position to serve as a leading donor and voice to spur on giving from other countries. Support from the United States and many other governments will be critical to maintaining stability and hospitality in the region.
And, a week later, on January 22, the Geneva II peace conference is scheduled to take place in Switzerland. All of us involved in humanitarian activities in the region hope that this conference will help return peace and stability to Syria.
In closing, let me thank you again for holding this hearing and acknowledge that that the challenges presented by the crisis in Syria and in the region are immense. Nonetheless, we are committed to do everything in our power to live up to our values and to meet the needs of the many Syrians in jeopardy, as well as the needs of others among the world’s most vulnerable people.
What the International Community Has Accomplished
Highlights of Aid Deliveries
Food: The U.S. government supports food assistance efforts currently reaching more than 1.3 million Syrian refugees in five neighboring countries (over 90% of whom receive food vouchers).
Vaccinations: Vaccination campaigns for measles, rubella, and polio have been organized by WHO and UNICEF and supported by those agencies and UNHCR. Vaccinations campaigns carried out for refugees and locals have reached 3.8 million refugees and local children in Turkey and Jordan. In Lebanon, the first of a series of nationwide polio vaccination campaigns in early November reached 580,770 children under the age of five, resulting in a 98.4 per cent coverage rate nationwide. The total included 8,400 children vaccinated at five border entry points, and 25,500 Palestinian children vaccinated through UNRWA. U.S. government-supported programs aim to help refugees and also improve the ability of local health services to meet local residents’ needs.
Education: The U.S. government supports programs to enhance refugee children’s access to schools, including learning programs that help youth who have fallen behind in their studies to catch up and enroll at local schools at appropriate grade levels.
Palestinian refugees inside Syria: The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) continues its efforts to provide support to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, including those who have fled the fighting that has enveloped and consumed Palestinian neighborhoods in Syria.
Shelter: Innovative programs in Jordan and Lebanon helps property owners in local communities upgrade unfinished structures into suitable refugee housing, in exchange for free rent to refugees.
Child Protection: Special recreation, educational, and mental health activities have reached 100,000 Syrian children in Jordan and Lebanon.
Gender-based Violence: The U.S. government supports programs to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence. This includes enhancing the capacity of local service providers to assist refugees to benefit from their services and to manage the individual cases of refugees.
Safety: A U.S. government project in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) supports the Jordanian government’s efforts to improve security in the Za’atri refugee camp. It helps Jordanian police to train approximately 600 Syrian refugee residents over six months to act as a safety presence and deterrent to crime in the camp, and to report major issues to police.