Rarely a source of good news, the Middle East can take hope in the recent generosity of three countries: Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. Since their neighbor Syria erupted into civil war in 2011, the three nations have accepted more than 2 million refugees.
But that charity of spirit is coming under severe stress as continuing refugee flows threaten to destabilize the countries. In Lebanon, refugees now make up nearly a quarter of the population. “The impact on many communities across the region is overwhelming,” said State Department Assistant Secretary Anne Richard last week.
The US and the European Union already have been generous in their own way. The US is the largest aid donor for Syria’s displaced – which number nearly the size of New Jersey’s population – having so far provided $1.3 billion in humanitarian aid.
A group of donor nations will meet Jan. 15 in Kuwait to gather pledges for aid this year. The goal: raising $6.5 billion in aid, or what the United Nations calls “the biggest amount ever requested for a single humanitarian emergency.”
The world has a stake in alleviating Syria’s giant refugee crisis, not only for moral purposes but because both aid and asylum can influence the outcome of the war. With peace talks tentatively set to start next week in Geneva, the regime of Bashar al-Assad hopes its neighbors will steadily close their borders to refugees, forcing the regime’s opponents to stay in Syria and accept its harsh, dictatorial rule.
The UN wants 30,000 of Syria’s most vulnerable refugees – mainly women and children – to be taken in by the US and Europe. About 20 countries in Europe plan to accept 18,000 Syrians. For now, however, the Obama administration has committed to resettling only “several thousand” Syrians.
One problem for the US is that post-9/11 laws make it difficult to screen asylum seekers from Muslim countries. The laws were designed to make sure terrorists don’t slip through. More than 135,000 Syrian refugees have applied for asylum. Last year, only a few dozen were allowed into the US. The Obama administration has legal ways to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles and begin granting far more temporary visas.
The US has called on Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon to keep their borders open. For both humanitarian and security reasons – and out of gratitude to those countries – the US must now also open its border to the huddled masses of Syrian refugees.