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UNHCR Syria Refugee Camp
Photo Credit: UN Photo by Mark Garten

Every other week, I’ll share with you our knowledge on the Syrian conflict and refugee crisis.

This past fall, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) made a request for the resettlement of 30,000 at-risk Syrian refugees. Larry Yungk, Senior Resettlement Officer at UNHCR, gave us the inside scoop.

Extreme and Complex Cases

The Syrian refugee crisis has caught the world’s eye, and for good reason. Yungk says the refugee cases he has read show that “persecution is very extreme.” He explains, “there are a lot of people living in areas of conflict that are at a point controlled by the Opposition, and then by the Government. The Government, who thinks they’ve cooperated with the Opposition, persecutes them. Then the Opposition comes in and thinks that they’ve cooperated with the Government, and so they persecute them. Then the Government comes in again and thinks they’ve cooperated with the Opposition, so does the same thing.”

What also makes these cases extreme he says, are reprisals. “There were reprisals against nearly everyone,” Yungk says. “Those who took generally peaceful actions against the Government are tortured and made examples of. Bloggers blogging against the Government are tracked down, journalists, those in the media,” he lists. It reminds him of the Cold War in Argentina. “People being brought in and hanged and electrocuted.”

Yungk also underlines that in these refugee cases, people are being directly persecuted or tortured. “Just fleeing general violence doesn’t add up to a refugee claim,” he explains. “These cases being put forward are where people are being targeted. This isn’t people trying to get out of crossfire, these are people that are being persecuted, victims of violence and torture.”

Vulnerable Syrian Refugees Face Obstacles in the Resettlement Process

Sweden, Germany, and about 18 other countries have stepped up and offered spaces for 18,500 of the 30,000 refugees UNHCR would like to resettle. The United States is expected to take a bulk of the 11,500 refugees left. However, certain legislation will make it difficult for the most vulnerable Syrians to quickly resettle in the United States. A policy called Terrorism-Related Inadmissibility Grounds bars any refugee who supported “terrorist activity.”

In the case of Syrian refugees, this includes anyone who supported the Opposition, even if not directly. For example, Yungk explains, “if you ran a store in Syria and the Opposition frequently came in and bought things from your store, the United States would bar you.” UNHCR is carefully picking cases for the United States to gauge what types of claims will be accepted.

Social Connections are Critical 

Despite challenges that Syrian refugees face, Yungk is hopeful that the United States will begin to resettle vulnerable refugees by the end of 2014. When they join our communities, he says “social connections are critical to helping people learn the language and culture of their new home.” Whether at work, church, or school, Americans should reach out to Syrian refugees. Not only will they be making their communities stronger, but they’ll also be able to learn about a culture and people from across the world. As Yungk says, “act locally, think globally.”

Take action and call on your representative to support welcome for refugees through LIRS’s Action Center.

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