THE BLOG
01/25/2016 01:55 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2017

They Hear Us: The Toxic U.S. Debate about Refugee Resettlement

egal via Getty Images

By Eleanor Acer

Over the last two weeks, I was in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey assessing the challenges facing Syrian refugees in the region. And to my chagrin, I learned that the political debate in the United States over Syrian resettlement is reverberating on the front lines of the Syrian refugee crisis.

The rhetoric of some U.S. politicians has convinced some refugees that they would not be welcome in the United States. One U.S. based pro bono volunteer flew to Jordan to assure vulnerable refugees that they should continue to work with her to secure safety and not abandon hope in America.

Aid workers in the region asked me whether I thought the Senate would vote to stop Syrian resettlement. Staff at an organization that counsels victims of torture worried how refugees awaiting resettlement in the United States would survive a halt in resettlement when they already struggle daily in a country where they can't work and receive little aid.

Now let's zoom out to the macro level.

Turkey, a NATO ally, hosts over 2.5 million refugees. It is referring refugee cases to UNHCR, which is then referring eligible and vulnerable cases to the United States or other countries for resettlement consideration. Around 600,000 refugees are registered in Jordan, though the government estimates that there are over one million living in the country. These large numbers are straining Jordan's infrastructure--including water, education, and healthcare--and could impact the stability of this key U.S. ally. A significant portion of the Syrian refugees slated to be resettled to the United States this year will come from Jordan.

While United States plans to resettle only about 10,000 refugees will barely make a dent, it is a start at least. And, with increased resettlement from other countries as well, will help support the stability of Jordan and other front-line refugee hosting states.

Given the massive number of refugees these counties host, what message is the raging political debate in the United States on Syrian resettlement sending?

In the absence of adequate support from the international community--in terms of aid, assistance, and resettlement--Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon have shut their borders to Syrian refugees. Many trying to escape the Assad regime, Russian bombs, or ISIL terrorism, are trapped in Syria. More than 16,000 Syrian refugees, including many trying to flee recent Russian bombing and ISIL brutality, have been blocked from entering Jordan, stranded in a remote "no man's land" in the desert along the Syrian border.

The Jordanian government recently invited other countries to help "absorb" these refugees. Ahead of a February 4 donor conference in London, the Financial Times reported that a Jordanian government spokesperson said, "We hope that the world will step forward and help hosting countries deal with the refugee issue, because otherwise they will have to deal with this problem all over the world -- at the shores of Europe, North America, and elsewhere."

Earlier this month, Turkey imposed a new visa requirement on Syrians aimed at stemming the flow of refugees. As the visa requirement went into effect, Lebanon reportedly deported several hundred Syrians back to Syria after they were denied permission at Beirut airport to board planes bound for Turkey.

After World War II, the United States helped lead efforts to create an international protection regime so that people fleeing persecution would never again be turned back to face horror or death. More than 60 years later we're faced with the greatest refugee crisis since that time. And governments are again preventing refugees from escaping and forcing them to make impossible choices.

Fathers denied permission to work in host countries must decide whether to risk the detention or deportation to Syria that could result from working illegally, or let their school-age children work since they wouldn't face the same consequences if caught. A pregnant mother, stranded with her family at the Jordan border, must decide whether to accept the limited offer to enter the country to have her baby born safely in a hospital, but leave her other young children and husband behind in the desert. And many refugees, after years of suffering and turmoil, are deciding whether to risk their lives to make the dangerous journey to Europe.

Across the region, refugees are no longer able to survive in the face of massive aid cuts and policies that limit their ability to support their families and educate their children. In Lebanon, I met an Iraqi refugee who had worked for the U.S. military for many years. A Christian, he -- like some Syrian Christians -- decided to flee to Lebanon. His family is barely getting by. He works when he can find a job but lives in constant fear. Like many refugees, he is exploited by employers who pay him very little for his work.

Beginning in 2014, and escalating in 2015, the Lebanese government, launched policies that blocked more refugees from entering and detained those caught working. The country already hosts over 1 million Syrian refugees, an estimated one out of four people living in Lebanon. Due to the inability of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut to allocate space, the United States suspended its already limited resettlement operations in Lebanon for an entire year. While some U.S. resettlement will resume, the numbers will be small and U.S. processing is notoriously slow.

I met another refugee, a gay man facing grave risks in Lebanon. Despite some strong U.S. ties, he will likely be resettled to another country. The U.S. resettlement process typically moves too slowly to protect many who face dire risks.

Last Thursday, the Senate took an important step towards restoring U.S. leadership in protecting the persecuted and sent the right message to our allies and the world. By voting to prevent a bill that would halt Syrian resettlement from moving forward, the Senate preserved this country's ability to use resettlement to protect refugees and to support U.S. allies and front-line refugee hosting countries. Not only are Syrian refugees more closely vetted than any population that comes to the United States, but their resettlement also advances U.S. national security interests and reflects cherished American values, as a bipartisan group of 20 top national security leaders recently told Congress.

The world is listening to the rhetoric of U.S. political leaders and watching to see what the United States will do. That includes our allies, and the many families who have been waiting for years to rebuild their lives in safety and freedom.