WASHINGTON, D.C. – Catholic leaders have said that the dramatic decrease in the number of Syrian refugees accepted by the United States is of great humanitarian concern.
While the United States government is in the midst of condemning and investigating recent suspected chemical warfare attacks reportedly carried out by the Syrian government, the number of Syrian refugees accepted by the United States has declined dramatically this year.
According to the State Department, the United States has accepted only 11 Syrian refugees so far this year, compared with 790 over the same period in 2016.
More than 10 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes over the course of a civil war that has been ongoing for the past seven years. Many of these refugees have overwhelmingly flooded neighboring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon.
“The precipitous decline in the number of Syrians the United States is resettling is extremely concerning,” Bill O’Keefe, vice president for government relations and advocacy for Catholic Relief Services, told CNA.
“…millions of Syrians remain displaced, caught in a web of violence and proxy wars,” he added. “The United States has traditionally taken the most vulnerable refugees, including Syrians, who have suffered terrible trauma or would be unable to go home. These refugees are the neighbors Jesus told us to love in the Gospel. We can safely welcome thousands of these women, men, and children to our country.”
In 2016, the United States resettled more than 15,000 Syrian refugees, and just over 3,000 in 2017. If the current rate is maintained, fewer than 50 Syrian refugees will be resettled in the United States in 2018.
For 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump set the total number of refugees that would be accepted by the United States at 45,000, and travel bans and other obstacles have slowed immigration even further.
Edward Clancy, director of outreach for Aid to the Church in Need, USA, told CNA that U.S. immigration policies have also been particularly unfair to Christian refugees in previous years.
“The number of Christian refugees has been very low compared to their representation in the population, so we’re speaking out on behalf of Christians with no voice in the Middle East…we’ve made it part of our mandate to support the Christian community in the Middle East in these areas of refugees, food shelter, pastoral care, whatever is needed,” Clancy told CNA.
Clancy noted that many churches in the United States have been very generous at the local level in supporting and welcoming new refugees, but he urged Catholics and Christians to get in touch with their representatives to voice their concerns about policies affecting Syrian and other refugees.
“If they feel that something needs to be done, then they should contact their congressman or senator to say that we have to make sure that these people have every opportunity for life, because that’s what it comes down to,” Clancy said.
“They’re leaving…mainly just to stay alive. Almost all of them want to stay home, they want to stay where they come from, they don’t want to move, they’re being forced to do so, so we should be understanding of that,” he said.
Bill Canny, executive director for Migration and Refugee Services for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), told CNA that the number of refugees the United States was accepting from Syria in past years was already small in comparison to the millions who were forced to flee their homes.
The U.S. Bishops had advocated for an annual refugee cap of at least 75,000 for the United States for 2018, before the Trump administration announced it would be 45,000, Canny added.
“We were already only able to help a few, and not being able to do that is very disconcerting,” Canny told CNA.
The USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Service is one of nine national resettlement programs, working with the Catholic Charities network throughout the country to help resettle refugees, including Syrians. Most refugees arrive in the United States simply wanting a dignified life and are eager to be contributing citizens, Canny noted.
“They want good education for their children, they jump on work opportunities, I think that in a matter of a few months at least 75 percent of refugees get a job and start working,” he said. “These are people who have suffered badly, languishing in either refugee camps or urban slums oftentimes, who deserve another chance.”
He added that refugees who enter the United States were already subjected to the strictest vetting, and that additional security measures were not necessary.
“While we respect safety concerns and we know it’s the government’s right to keep us safe, we don’t think the refugee program is an avenue of danger to our citizens, due to the extensive security checks that have been done for a number of years,” Canny said.
Furthermore, the issue of refugee resettlement should be of particular concern to Christians because the Gospel compels them to care for the poor and the needy, Canny noted.
“Certainly it’s a core responsibility of our faith, from exhortations in the Old Testament to welcome the stranger, to make sure that one cares for newcomers, and of course from the New Testament and the teachings of Christ,” he said. “Matthew 25 compels us to help the neediest, and certainly refugees are really the neediest.”