Whether one was for or against the U.S. strikes supporting NATO strikes on Syria last September, or one believes that the Syria conflict is a civil war rather than a revolution, Syrian refugees remain the consistent symptom of Syria's plight -- however it is described.
Remember how Assad's chemical weapons scare overshadowed Syria's more glaring humanitarian crisis -- only to reach a deal that, again, overshadowed the same humanitarian crisis?
"Only 31 [Syrian] refugees were allowed into the U.S. in 2013," Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) said in a statement to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights "Syrian Refugee Crisis".
He added that none of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members have committed to accepting Syrian refugees and that "these countries need to step up as well" and not just send money. (GCC members include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar.)
Allocating money to address the Syria crisis is politically challenging, but entertaining a non-financial solution, such as accepting refugees, ignites even more political controversy beyond Syria's neighboring countries -- countries that host 2.3 million Syrians while facing their own housing and unemployment challenges.
Resettling Syrian Refugees Goes Beyond Funding
On January 15, Kuwait will co-host a pledging conference with the United Nations since Kuwait is among the largest governments (4th largest in 2013) and private donors. In addition to government funding from GCC countries, it is estimated that "over hundreds of millions of dollars" in private funding reached Syria since 2011, according to a Brookings Institution report from November 2013.
The Syrian refugee crisis is not just about funding. In Turkey, most refugees do not live in the camps, so we must focus on the plight of urban refugees and the need for open borders, testified Ann C. Richard, Assistant Secretary of State for Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.
Yet, in Lebanon, refugees make up about 20 percent of the population, with the United Nations Human Rights Commission projecting an additional one million Syrians seeking refugee in Lebanon by the end of 2014.
"Those in need are equal to the entire state of NJ; those displaced are equal to the entire state of MA," said Nancy Lindborg, Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance at U.S. Agency for International Development.
Although the packed hearing attracted participation by senators outside of the subcommittee, basic questions regarding U.S. assistance to stem the Syrian human rights crisis received more attention than the tougher questions. For example, Senator Amy Klobuchar's (D-MN) question exemplified a common misconception held by those outside of the donor community who believe that the humanitarian aid must be disseminated through the Assad regime. U.N. agencies only need permission from the regime, clarified the witnesses.
However, the tougher questions, like funding throughout 2014, haunt the U.S. as much as it does multi-lateral donors. The amount remains uncertain because "we keep passing the worst-case scenario", according to Richards when trying to answer Senator Graham's (R-SC) question: How much additional money do the Departments of State, Homeland Security and USAID need to plan for resettling refugee?
Of the 1.3 billion dollars provided in aid by the U.S. government, the U.S. Agency for International Development issues vouchers to Syrian refugees in neighboring countries to purchase food. But, as USAID Administrator, Nancy Lindborg stated, "Our aid will not stop bloodshed and will not solve conflict".
Aside from the U.S. financial ability to absorb more refugees, there is the American fear that inviting refugees will also invite radicalization.
"Americans shouldn't equate refugees with terrorists," explained Richards. "[M]ost are law-abiding people who are just shattered."
The radicalization fear comes from, perhaps, equal parts: 1) misgivings in funding rebel groups and 2) xenophobia. Note, the U.S. demonstrates a strong track record in accepting refugees who also were political dissidents, from Cuba, China and Iraq.
U.S. immigration law poses the biggest challenge in resettling Syrian refugees, which prohibits granting refugee status to those who worked with rebel groups, like the Free Syrian Army, which received U.S. assistance, according to Durbin.
Discretion is needed to issue exemptions to those requiring Temporary Protective Status (TPS), agreed Molly Groom, Chief of the Refugee and Asylum Law Division at the Department of Homeland Security. TPS lasts for 18 months. Still, no draft legislation was presented to incorporate this mutual agreement.
Hosting Refugees Creates Incentive to End, Rather Than Fund, Conflict
The hearing raised the same questions raised in the Senate Foreign Relations committee and again in the House Foreign Affairs Committee six months ago.
"By now we should have some answers regarding resettlement policies," said Amer Mahdi Doko, who was among the three Syrian refugees, under TPS, recognized during the hearing.
Doko faced imprisonment by the Assad regime twice for organizing pro-democracy and human rights activists. The Assad regime also detained two of Doko's brothers. The other two exiled journalists, Iyad Sharbaji and Omar al-Muqdad, fled to the U.S. with their wives and continue to testify on the regime's atrocities Sharabji was arrested and tortured by the regime for publishing recordings of the regime's response to a non-violent protest. Similarly al-Muqdad, who hails from Dara'a-t -- the city where young boys were tortured for spray-painting "Down with the regime" in 2011-- documented human rights abuses by security forces. For this, al-Muqdad was arrested seven times and imprisoned twice for his reporting activities.
Doko expressed no hope that Durbin's appeal to GCC countries in hosting Syrian refugees would offer new resettlement options for Syrian refugees. Even if neighboring countries decide to close the borders, because they are struggling to meet current refugee challenges, countries like Saudi Arabia or Kuwait will visit refugee camps, not host. Hosting refugees incentivizes ending the conflict. Providing aid from a distance simply keeps the problem at a distance.
In a sad irony, on the day of the hearing, the United Nations announced its decision to suspend the Syrian death toll count, which has exceeded 130,000, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Policy on refugees and counting civilian deaths has hit an impasse. The way that each country addresses the Syrian refugee issue (serving as a host or not) speaks more to their resolve to find a peaceful solution than how much money they channel towards Syria.