Officials of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops warn that the Syrian refugee crisis—four million people have fled the war-torn state—has reached a dangerous “tipping point.” Turkey alone has absorbed almost two million refugees from Syria and is now the only regional power allowing more refugees in. But for how much longer, officials wonder, can Turkey accept the burden? In addition to the Syrians, waves of other refugees—as many as 103,000—have already washed across the Turkish border from Iraq. Meanwhile, conflict in both nations continues to rage, driving more Christians, Yazidis and both Shiite and Sunni Muslims from their communities.
Worried about its capacity to absorb many more refugees and the possibility of terrorist infiltration, Jordan has already closed its borders to people seeking to escape from regions controlled by the Islamic State. “Without more international support, we will find Syrians fleeing extremists being turned away and forced back to danger,” said Anastasia Brown, interim executive director for the U.S.C.C.B.’s Migration and Refugee Services. Turkey has continued to allow refugees in but now, especially in communities near the border with Syria, faces becoming “overwhelmed” by the crisis.
A delegation of U.S.C.C.B. officials that visited the region in late 2014 released a report on March 6—“Refuge and Hope in the Time of ISIS”—looking at the plight of Syrians in Turkey and during a growing and perilous migration to Europe through Greece and Bulgaria. Many other Syrians seeking to escape the violence have become part of the vast undocumented exodus across the Mediterranean, a humanitarian crisis frequently lamented by Pope Francis.
Of special concern is the impact the crisis is having on as many as two million Syrian child refugees. Among those are many children who have lost or been separated from parents or family members and who have a special claim on protection. “The number of unaccompanied children and other vulnerable children from Syria and elsewhere is rising, yet there are few protection mechanisms in place to identify and rescue them from harm,” said Nathalie Lummert, director of special programs for M.R.S. “What we are seeing is an exodus of the next generation in Syria, with little hope for their future.”
The delegation also expressed grave concern for the plight of religious minorities, who are targets of extremists in the region. The lives of Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, along with Yazidis, are at risk. “Without a dramatic response to this unprecedented humanitarian challenge, we will continue to see ongoing suffering and even death in this population, especially among the most vulnerable,” Brown said. “The global community, led by Europe and the United States, needs to increase its support in order to prevent a humanitarian crisis.”
How vast is this humanitarian problem? Brown explains that so many are now fleeing Syria and Iraq that those able to meet with U.N. refugee officials are being put on waiting lists—not to be extracted from the troubled region, but just to be registered as refugees—that are backlogged until 2020 and 2022.
That means families will be “stranded” in these Turkish communities without a legal status that will allow parents to properly settle their families, find health care, enroll their children in school and accept work. Worse, according to Brown, most unregistered refugee families have allowed their children to skip school and take whatever jobs they can find. It is far easier for children to find gray market employment than it is for their parents, and the need to survive is now trumping concern for the future.
Brown argues that the United States and the European Union not only have to do much more to assist the resettlement, support and protection of refugees scattered across the region; they must quickly reset refugee quotas to levels that more reasonably address the severity of the crisis. “Right now, hundreds of Syrians have come to the United States,” Brown complained, “versus the thousands who need assistance.”
Last year, the United States accepted fewer than 70,000 refugees from the entire world. Many thousands need to be extracted from this troubled region alone. U.S. refugee policy needs to be re-evaluated, Brown said, to effectively function as the “timely and…lifesaving mechanism it is meant to be.”