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UNHCR Head Visits U.S. In Plea To Speed Up Syrian Refugee Resettlement


The United Nations Refugee Agency is struggling to cope with the worst migrant crisis since World War II, and the Italian diplomat who now runs the organization has come to Washington to ask for help. His visit falls on the fifth anniversary of the war in Syria, the main driver of this refugee crisis. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: With Syrian refugees stranded on European borders or crossing dangerous waters, Filippo Grandi is proposing a better path.

FILIPPO GRANDI: Resettlement is the safest way to move people from one country to another.

KELEMEN: The new U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is trying now to resettle about 400,000 Syrians. That's just 10 percent of the current Syrian refugee population. He says everyone needs to help, and countries can be creative offering short-term solutions.

GRANDI: So for example, we're saying give scholarships. A lot of young Syrians would like to go on scholarships, even if it is for four years. That gives them a window. And by the way, that maybe gives them skills that they can use if they go back, so that's a double advantage.

KELEMEN: He's discussing this with the Obama administration and offering help to try to speed up the U.S. resettlement process. The U.S. has pledged to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees by this October. But so far, only a fraction of that number have arrived. Eleanor Acer of Human Rights First says she's met refugees who were in the pipeline to come to the U.S., but have given up.

ELEANOR ACER: Some have even, you know, headed on to Europe because they don't have any faith that the U.S. system is actually going to move ahead because it moves so slowly.

KELEMEN: When the resettlement process works, Acer says, it takes about 18 months to two years for refugees to go through all their U.S. security and medical checks. Her organization found that Syrians face even longer delays, and she's urging President Obama to fix this, and not just for humanitarian reasons.

ACER: It's important in terms of the U.S. ability to support its allies - to support its allies in Europe and to support front-line refugee-hosting countries like Jordan.

KELEMEN: She wants the U.S. to at least reach its target this year. Filippo Grandi of the U.N. Refugee Agency echoes that, and says he's worried about the anti-refugee rhetoric on the U.S. campaign trail.

GRANDI: This is a very important part of U.S. leadership in the world. So since every candidate is talking about U.S. leadership - aren't they? - this is part of it. This is not weakening leadership, it is strengthening it. So that's my message.

KELEMEN: Grandi is careful not to be too critical, though, since the U.S. takes in refugees from all across the world, more than any other nation, and he needs that to continue. Michelle Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.