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Syria: From Refugees to Asylum Seekers

A massive refugee crisis in Syria persists – and is worsening by the day.

Last week, Germany received its second round of Syrian refugees – 106 out of 5,000 Syrian refugees hand-selected by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees to receive temporary asylum in Germany.

These refugees are part of a program recently approved by the German government that will grant 5,000 Syrian refugees living in Lebanon asylum for two years, or longer if the war continues. To qualify for the program, refugees must be registered with the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, have been living in Lebanon for at least one year and demonstrate a particular level of vulnerability such as a physical disability. Refugees with family ties in Germany are given a special preference.

Once in Germany, refugees are settled in Hellersdorf, a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Berlin. So far, the refugees have been housed in an abandoned high school – and only one month into the resettlement program, the mere 200 refugees who have made the journey already have been the targets of many right-wing anti-immigrant demonstrations.

Nevertheless, Germany has been praised as a “role model” for this resettlement initiative; in addition to Sweden, which has promised blanket asylum to any Syrian refugee who independently makes the journey to Sweden, it is the only country that voluntarily has implemented a resettlement and asylum program for Syrian refugees. However, Daryl Grisgraber, international senior advocate for the Middle East, says that, although helpful, the German initiative is merely a drop in the bucket.

“The Lebanese government estimates that there are 1 million Syrians living in Lebanon, so 5,000 people that Germany is going to take really aren’t going to make much of a difference in terms of crowding and social tensions that exist within the current structures,” she said, referring to the influx of Syrians in Lebanon since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. In addition to crowding and a lack of adequate resources, there are fears that the flood of Syrian refugees will ignite political tensions with the significant pro-Assad faction of the Lebanese government, sucking Lebanon – a popular refuge for Syrians – into Syria’s violence.

Despite the obvious strain on Lebanon – and other countries hosting large numbers of refugees such as Turkey, Jordan and even Iraq – the international community has done little to relieve the pressure on the host countries. Although the United Nations asked for $5 billion from donor countries to address the needs of refugees, only 40 percent of this request has been met after four months.

On October 1, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman addressed the UN General Assembly in New York while Wael Abu Faour, Lebanese minister of social affairs, addressed diplomats in Geneva.

“Nothing has materialized so far, not one hospital, not one school,” Faour said, referring to the slough of empty promises from the United Nations and the international community to host countries. “We are more than disappointed. We are frustrated. It has been more than two years of advice, of lessons, of promises and nothing.”

President Suleiman warned the gathered leaders that they “risked losing an ally” if the status quo were to continue.

Following the meeting, 17 countries – including the United States, Canada and Australia among many other European countries – agreed to implement quotas for incoming Syrian refugees to help alleviate the tension for host countries. Although exact numbers have yet to be announced, these quotas will grant asylum to 10,000 additional refugees.

Still, even these asylum seekers – another mere fraction of the total number of Syrian refugees – will face enormous challenges adjusting to life in the West. In addition to the anti-immigrant sentiment already expressed in Germany that many countries in Europe are renowned for, many countries have deliberate policies in place to make seeking asylum, or living as an asylum-seeker, impossible. In Switzerland, newly arrived refugees are given identification cards that do not even allow them to do basic things, such as purchase a Swiss SIM card. In the United States, each asylum seeker must be interviewed extensively and screened for potential ties to Al Qaeda.

The United States Department of Homeland Security is sitting on more than 6,000 visa applications from Syrian refugees. Even though the United States has announced it will grant asylum to a quota of 2,000 of these refugees, these screenings combined with the broad definition of “terrorism ties” under the Patriot Act – meaning that anyone who has ever given small amounts of money to the Al Qaeda-aligned rebel fighters or fought themselves could be implicated – could mean that none of the refugees are approved to seek asylum in the United States.

Since the conflict began two and a half years ago, the United States has granted asylum to fewer than 100 Syrian refugees. In 2013, when more than 1 million left Syria’s borders as the United States pushed for a military invasion, only 33 Syrian refugees were granted asylum in the United States.

This is not the first time refugees from the Middle East have experienced these difficulties. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 created a refugee crisis that, at the time, was the worst the Middle East had seen since the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 with the establishment of the state of Israel.

While Sweden once again granted asylum to all refugees who found their way to its borders, the United States – despite creating the conflict – imposed strict rules on Iraqi refugees seeking to enter the country. Although Congress created the Special Immigrant Visa program, an expedited process that would grant asylum and special treatment to Iraqi and Afghani translators and other assistants to the United States military during the two wars, and gave priority to religious minorities who were especially vulnerable in the ensuing sectarian clashes, most other ordinary refugees were ignored from the beginning – instead looking to Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Iran for refuge.

Following the arrest of two Iraqi refugees living in Kentucky suspected of sending money to Al Qaeda groups in the Middle East, asylum requests granted dropped significantly. In 2013, only 9,045 refugees were admitted to the United States, down from a high of more than 25,000 before the arrests. Additionally, almost one third of the Special Immigrant Visa applicants – those who had specifically helped the United States military – were rejected.

In the United States, only one out of every 200 asylum seekers will be approved for resettlement in the United States. Still, despite these flimsy asylum policies, the United States has created streamlined immigration procedures for Cubans wishing to escape Fidel Castro’s regime for the United States and granted temporary asylum to Haitians rendered refugees by the earthquake in 2010. It is not beyond the United States’ resources as a country to recognize the similar circumstances in Syria and extend relief accordingly.

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