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Why Does The U.S. Accept So Few Syrian Refugees?

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today, Lebanon and Turkey have each taken in more than a million Syrians. Hundreds of thousands have traveled to Europe by boat, bus or on foot. To the U.S., there's barely been a trickle of refugees from Syria's civil war, and activists are loudly urging the U.S. to do more.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Obama did recently raise the ceiling, saying the U.S. could take in 10,000 refugees from Syria next year if the government can screen and clear that many. Anne Richard handles Syrian refugee issues at the State Department, and I asked her why the U.S. role in resettling Syrian refugees has been so limited.

ANNE RICHARD: The United States is a global leader in responding to humanitarian crises all around the world, and we are the leader in resettling refugees from war zones to the United States. The last three years, we've brought 70,000 refugees each year, which makes up 70 percent of the world's total. When you look at the Syrian crisis, we realize that only a fraction of the refugees who have fled Syria will ever be resettled. Most will end up living in the places to which they've fled, the countries of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, to a certain extent, and Egypt. And so that is where we are providing a lot of assistance to help the countries that have done the right thing, opened their borders, taken in refugees, helped them to cope with having so many new residents in such a short period time.

SHAPIRO: So what I hear you saying - and correct me if I'm wrong - is the U.S. is a global leader on resettling refugees broadly, and the U.S. is a global leader on helping displaced Syrians where they are, whether that's Lebanon, Turkey. But the U.S. has decided not to take a leading role on creating homes for Syrians in the United States. Explain why that is.

RICHARD: The U.S. will probably end up bringing many, many Syrians to the United States to live, but it's not a process that moves quickly. It's a deliberate, careful process.

SHAPIRO: I'd like to play a cut of tape that I'm sure you're familiar with. This is from your boss, Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking about the challenge of increasing the number of Syrian refugees coming to the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KERRY: Post-9/11, we have new laws and requirements with respect to security background checks and vetting, so it takes longer than one would like. And we cannot cut corners with respect to those security requirements.

SHAPIRO: It takes longer than one would like. Refugees who we've spoken to in the United States say the screening process for them has taken up to two years, in some cases, which the U.N. High Commission On Refugees says is way too long, they told us. What do you think a reasonable amount of time is?

RICHARD: Well, the U.N. Refugee Agency is very grateful that the U.S. is the leading donor to that agency and also the leader of taking refugees for resettlement. We all think that 18 to 24 months is a long time to expect people to wait.

SHAPIRO: What do you think an appropriate amount of time is?

RICHARD: Well, I don't know. I mean, the process right now works. I mean, that's the positive part of it, is that year in and year out, we bring refugees to the United States. We've brought 3 million since the 1970s. These refugees end up extremely happy to have been given a second chance at life and willing to start over at the bottom of the economic ladder in many situations.

SHAPIRO: This has become an increasingly political issue. And we've spoken with advocates who say, as they vocally urge the U.S. to take in more refugees, they get thousands - literally thousands of emails from people saying the U.S. should close its doors. Does politics impact this conversation?

RICHARD: Well, what I have seen over a number of years of working on these programs outside the government and inside now - that there is strong bipartisan support and strong support among the public to help refugees. There is a very vocal, active minority of Americans who oppose the program and speak up about it, but most Americans, if you ask them - even if they don't know a lot about the program, if you ask them whether we should bring refugees here, they will say, of course. And they will instantly start talking about their own family's histories, their own family's experiences.

SHAPIRO: Anne Richard is the State Department's assistant secretary for population refugees and migration. Thank you very much for talking with us.

RICHARD: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: All week, we've been bringing you stories of some fortunate Syrians who have been resettled in Toledo, Ohio. You can find those stories and tell us what you think at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.