Caution: Resettlement Is Not a Substitute for Humanitarian Aid

By Daryl Grisgraber
A group of Syrian boys living in an urban refugee community in southern Turkey.

Yesterday’s announcement that the United States will accept 2,000 Syrian refugees is a welcome piece of good news for the nearly two million Syrians now living in exile. Many have spent more than two years trying to eke out an existence in neighboring countries that offer varying degrees of hospitality and support.

It is commendable that the U.S. is one of the countries that have responded positively to the United Nations’ request for protection for the most vulnerable Syrians, and it is in keeping with America’s history of welcoming migrants from all over the world. But we must not let this development cloud the fact that most Syrians will never be resettled, and that millions are still in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.

Resettlement is an option afforded to very few. Only about 1 percent of all refugees in the world will be resettled in any given year. It is meant to be a form of protection for the most vulnerable among the displaced – the people who cannot return to their home countries because of ongoing threats to their lives and well-being.

Resettlement can also be a lengthy and difficult process. In the U.S., resettlement involves multiple personal interviews, health screenings, and security checks by both the UN and the U.S. government, including the Department of Homeland Security. The full process takes months (and sometimes years) to complete, and during that time the applicant stays right where they are – in a tent camp, in a crowded one-room apartment, or even in an open park in the middle of a city – where they will need a wide range of support services.

It is also important to recognize that right now, most Syrian refugees do not want permanent resettlement; what they want is to return home in safety and dignity. Over the last 18 months, my colleagues and I have made regular visits to the countries hosting the largest Syrian refugee populations, and one detail that comes through each time is a widespread longing for return. When the first wave of Syrians reached in Lebanon in early 2012, every refugee we encountered expected and wanted to go back within a few weeks. Later that year in Jordan, after months spent in exile, Syrian refugees told us that they still wanted to go back to their country when the fighting stopped. “Once it’s safe, we’ll be back there within 24 hours,” the patriarch of one family said to me. And even this past spring, Syrians who had been in Turkey and Iraq for more than a year expressed their desire to return “the minute the fighting stops.”

All of this is to say that while America’s willingness to resettle Syrians is a good thing, the need for robust and effective humanitarian aid for all Syrians affected by conflict remains urgent. The majority of displaced Syrians have not been able to flee the country, and so do not have access to refugee resettlement processing at this time. Of those who have made it to other countries, only a few will qualify as vulnerable enough to be relocated entirely for their own protection. That leaves millions of people in precisely the same situation they are in right now: struggling to get by without adequate food, shelter, or health care; unable to work and provide for their families; and with no clear sense of what they might return to once Syria is declared safe.

The millions of Syrians who have fled, and the millions more suffering inside their own country, still need our help and attention; indeed, they may need it for a long time to come. Even if peace returns to Syria tomorrow, rebuilding the country’s social systems and infrastructure will take years, prolonging the wait for those who wish to return home in dignity. Resettlement is an important and life-saving option for a few, but the many more Syrians who wish to return home need our continued support.