All Eyes are Watching

The Syrian Refugee Crisis

A Syrian girl holds her brother in a blanket at a refugee camp in Domiz, Iraq. Photo credit: Peter Biro/International Rescue Committee

The Syrian Refugee Crisis

While a US-Russian strategy to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons has been formulated, concern deepens over the growing refugee population being created by the conflict. According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, the number of Syrian refugees has surpassed 2 million, half of whom are children. More than 97% of Syria's refugees are hosted by countries in the region – Lebanon hosts the most with some 720,000, followed by Jordan with 520,000, Turkey with 464,000, Iraq with 200,000, and Egypt with 111,000.

Action in the United States Senate

In the Senate, focus on Syria has been in the Foreign Relations Committee where Senators have heard the case for, and voted on the merits of, a US military strike in response to the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. The Foreign Relations Committee and Judiciary Committee, where the Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security is located, has jurisdiction over international humanitarian crises.

International Humanitarian Crises and the Role of Congress

We asked two former staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee to provide their perspective on the current debate on Syria and on past approaches Congress has taken to helping refugees.

Sharon Waxman served as a Senior National Security Advisor to Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) for 11 years, from 1998 to 2009. She is now Vice President of Policy and Advocacy at the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit organization that responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises and helps people to survive and rebuild their lives.

Stuart Anderson served as a Director of Immigration Research and Policy on the Senate Immigration Subcommittee for Senator Spencer Abraham (R-MI) and Staff Director of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee for Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) from 1997 to 2001. He is now Executive Director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonpartisan policy research organization in Arlington, VA. 

Traditionally, what is the role of the Senate during a refugee crisis like that which is ongoing right now due to the situation in Syria?

WAXMAN: Congress has an important role to play. The humanitarian crisis resulting from the Syrian civil war is one of the biggest in the world, and continues to worsen each day. Two million Syrians are seeking refuge outside the country, mostly in the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan. Another five million are displaced inside Syria. All are in desperate need of life-saving assistance.

The US Government has been generous in its response to the crisis, providing more than $1 billion in humanitarian assistance to help the Syrian people. Congress has led the way in ensuring that the State Department and the Agency for International Development have sufficient resources to meet the increasing needs.

As this crisis continues, Congress should continue to provide resources to meet the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people both inside and outside the country. It should use its influence to urge countries in the region, which are under enormous pressure from the influx of refugees, to keep their borders open so refugees can find safe haven outside Syria.

In addition to providing resources, the Senate plays an important role in the policy debate about the resettlement of refugees. Each year the Administration and Congress consult on how many of the people fleeing persecution across the globe will be provided a new lease on life in America. They come to the US as refugees and are resettled in communities across the country. More than two years into the conflict, it’s time to start talking about resettling the most vulnerable refugees. Although most want to return home, it’s clear many will not be able to do so.

ANDERSON: The role of the Senate during a refugee crisis is to evaluate and, if necessary, demonstrate to the executive branch that there is support for action and at times pushing an administration into acting. When I worked for Senator Spencer Abraham, who chaired the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, he held a hearing with Senator Kennedy in April 1999 on the Kosovo refugee crisis. That hearing received enormous press attention, highlighted human rights abuses and encouraged a strong effort ultimately made by the Clinton Administration to re-settle refugees from Kosovo in the United States, as well as increase relief efforts overseas.

What are the key pieces of legislation or other sources of authority that are relevant to the Senate during a refugee crisis and what are the points of engagement for Senators?

WAXMAN:  There are many points of engagement for Senators. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the point person within the United Nations system on refugees. Within the Administration, the White House plays an important role along with the State Department through the Bureau of Population, Migration, and Refugees and the Agency for International Development, through the Bureau of Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Affairs.

Congress has enormous influence in each of these institutions, especially when members engage in direct and sustained conversations with the leadership of these organizations. Members of Congress also travel overseas, where they have a unique opportunity to engage directly with foreign leaders and donor governments. 

ANDERSON: Under the law, the President is required to consult with Congress on refugee admissions. The annual refugee consultation is the avenue for that legal requirement. That is when the chair and ranking members of the House and Senate, usually in separate meetings, sit down and meet with the Secretary of State. I attended a number of those meetings with Senator Abraham and Senator Kennedy and they were memorable occasions. The one shortcoming in the process is that it is difficult at the time of the consultation to change the annual admission level proposed by the State Department, since the number may largely be set already based on House and Senate appropriations bill (i.e., the money allocated for refugee admission). In some cases, the consultation can serve the role of influencing numbers for the following fiscal year.

During a crisis, support from Congress can help an administration push through additional funding to provide more relief, including the entry and resettlement of refugees in the United States.

An important role of the Senate is oversight – keeping an eye on the actions by the executive branch as part of our system of checks and balances. How does this authority or responsibility come into play in a crisis such as this one?

WAXMAN:  As I indicated previously, the US government has been generous in its response to the humanitarian crisis. Congress has been instrumental in supporting the resources necessary for the Administration to pledge and provide funding.

That said, the international community overall has only provided 40 percent of what the Syrians need as identified by the UNHCR. Congress can use the power of the purse to provide resources to respond, and it can join the Administration in urging the international community to provide more resources.

It also can use its responsibility to oversee the actions of the Executive Branch as part of our system of checks and balances.  That oversight comes from the relevant Committees in Congress which can hold hearings, conduct inquiries, and require briefings. 

In a refugee crisis, there are several key statutes that govern the Administration’s actions and also involve Congress.  The Refugee Act of 1980, sponsored by Senator Kennedy, governs whom we admit for resettlement in appropriations bills and foreign policy authorities also guide the activities of the Administration and can be the basis of Congressional oversight.

ANDERSON:  As mentioned earlier, the attention the Senate gave to the plight of refugees from Kosovo made it impossible for the executive branch to do anything but what it ultimately did, which was to act in a way commensurate with America’s tradition of welcoming refugees to our shores in a time of need.

Can you cite examples of occasions where Senate leadership in a refugee crisis made a particularly clear impact?

WAXMAN:  Senator Kennedy played a unique role in addressing the Iraq refugee crisis. After the 2003 war, it was clear that Iraqis, particularly those who were associated with the US Government, were being targeted by the insurgency. Many had served alongside our soldiers in combat. Others had worked for USAID or the State Department.

Initially, the Bush Administration was reluctant to view Iraqis as refugees, believing they had been liberated. Senator Kennedy led a bipartisan effort to create a unique processing program for Iraqis who were associated with the US. He required the Department of State to process refugees in Baghdad, and gave the Administration the authority to grant Iraqis who had worked for the US special immigrant status. Thousands of lives have been saved as a result of the program. Without action from Congress, this program will expire at the end of the month.

Similarly, after the first Gulf War, the first Bush Administration was reluctant to get involved when Saddam Hussein turned on the Kurds of Northern Iraq. Thousands of Kurds lost their lives as they fled their homes. Congressional pressure played a key role in encouraging the first Bush Administration to act. That Administration then used our own military forces in the region to provide emergency relief to the refugees while the United Nations and relief agencies organized.  

Are there clear consensus positions on refugee issues that bring Senators together, or that particularly divide them?

WAXMAN:  America has long been a leader in providing humanitarian assistance across the globe. America’s program to resettle refugees fleeing persecution is among the most generous in the world. There is great agreement in the Congress on the importance of meeting human needs and provide life-saving assistance to those who are persecuted and suffering the consequences of conflict. It’s an issue that unifies Members, and is generally not divisive.

ANDERSON:  I believe refugee issues are normally an example of bipartisanship. Some members of Congress may be more concerned about ensuring refugees fleeing religious persecution are handled appropriately, while other members may have an interest in ensuring regional balance, such as sufficient attention in Africa. But in general there is support for refugees in Congress.

What, if anything, tends to cause the Senate to take action on a refugee crisis? Is public outrage persuasive? What should students or members of the public do during a time like this in order to have their point of view heard in the Senate?

WAXMAN:  The most important thing students and the public can do is make their views known. Members of Congress need to hear from their constituents. If you share my view that more resources should be provided to meet the growing humanitarian needs in the region more than two years into the conflict and that it’s time for the international community to begin to resettle the most vulnerable Syrians, then call your Congressman or Congresswoman. Your voice matters.

ANDERSON:  Public attention to a refugee crisis is always helpful. Congress is often criticized but one thing Congress does well is to bring attention to an issue. An administration still may choose not to act but the more attention that is focused on an issue the harder it is to avoid taking necessary humanitarian action. Such action can save lives.

Other than Syria, what are the main refugee hot-spots around the world right now, and what is your sense of the level of engagement on these crisis situations among the general public worldwide and here in the US? And in the Senate?

WAXMAN: The number of people forcibly displaced worldwide is 45.2 million. According to UNHCR this is the highest number since 1994 when an estimated 47 million people were displaced

I just returned from a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there are 2.5 million internally displaced persons as a result of ongoing conflict in that country. There are many other large refugee crises, including those resulting from the conflicts in Somalia, Afghanistan and South Sudan. Unfortunately, the number of refugees continues to rise at the same time there is increasing pressure on the federal budget. This means Congress has a unique responsibility to ensure that our humanitarian assistance accounts are adequately funded.


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