Pope's Visit Should Galvanize US to Meaningfully Respond to Global Refugee Crisis

Pope Francis waves from the top of the stairs of his plane at the airport in Santiago, Cuba, Tuesday Sept. 22, 2015. Pope Fra
Pope Francis waves from the top of the stairs of his plane at the airport in Santiago, Cuba, Tuesday Sept. 22, 2015. Pope Francis wrapped up his visit to Cuba Tuesday by celebrating an homily at the country's most revered shrine and giving a pep talk with families before flying north to Washington for the start of his U.S. tour. (Ismael Francisco/Cubadebate Via AP)

By Eleanor Acer

As the Syrian conflict rages into its fifth year, it's all too easy for those of us far away to become inured to the suffering. The endless reports of violence tend to induce numbness. But the image of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned toddler, broke though. It individualized the suffering caused by the conflict, making it viscerally human again, and re-awoke the world to its horror.

The attention was desperately needed. Now it's time for action. An end to the conflict is nowhere near, and its intractability only heightens the responsibility of the world to help the victims who've escaped: the more than 4 million refugees.

Unfortunately, the United States, historically a leader in refugee resettlement, hasn't done nearly enough. In recent weeks the Obama Administration committed to resettling at least 10,000 Syrian refugees next year with a 15,000 addition to the overall refugee admission ceiling, minimal increases given our country's capacity and history of leadership.

Clearly, the U.S. government needs a push; Pope Francis, who arrives in the United States today, might be just the force to provide it. An outspoken champion of refugees, the Pope has instructed all European parishes to take in at least one refugee family, and the Vatican itself will house two families. The Pope has shown himself to be an unusually effective advocate. Here's hoping that when he meets with President Obama and addresses Congress, he'll urge the United States to lead a comprehensive global campaign to address the crisis.

What would such an effort look like?

First off, America should lead by example and reform its own policies towards refugees and asylum seekers. Last summer the Obama Administration responded to a refugee and migrant challenge on its southern border by sending women and children from Central America into immigration detention facilities -- often for many months. In fact, the administration is still locking up asylum-seekers to the detriment of their mental and physical health. If the United States is to urge just and humane treatment of refugees that flee to other countries, it needs to do the same to those who cross our own borders.

As for the Syrian crisis, the United States should commit to shelter 100,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2016. This is an extremely manageable amount for a country as large as the United States, which had planned to resettle 70,000 refugees this year as part of its regular refugee program -- before the global refugee crisis hit the headlines. As part of this stepped up effort, the U.S. government should address existing delays in resettlement and bring to safety more quickly those most at-risk, including family members of Syrian-Americans.

To facilitate this initiative, President Obama should increase the annual ceiling for refugee admissions to 200,000 and Congress should support this initiative. Then the United States will have demonstrated the leadership required to be able to persuade other countries to sharply increase their own resettlement commitments.

The United States took a significant step this week to increase its humanitarian aid by $419 million, but there is much more that can be done. The persistent underfunding of the UN's humanitarian appeal for Syria -- which is still, even with the recent U.S. contribution, only 38 percent funded -- limits its ability to provide relief and drives more Syrians to make the perilous journey to Europe. The United States should encourage other states to increase their contributions and fully fund the appeal.

While much of the media has focused on refugees fleeing to Europe, the vast majority are in states neighboring Syria. Lebanon, for instance, hosts more than a million refugees, a quarter of its population. Turkey has nearly two million, and more than 600,000 have fled to Jordan. The United States should increase humanitarian and development assistance for refugees and host communities in frontline states; at the same time, it should encourage them to allow refugees to work to support their families and to access education. The U.S. government should remind these nations to respect obligations to protect refugees from return to persecution, and stop blocking them from crossing borders to seek protection.

John Kirby, State Department spokesperson, said the recent commitment to resettle 10,000 refugees is "not going to be insignificant for the 10,000 Syrians who'll get to come to this country." That's true, but there are many thousands more Syrians struggling to survive or risking their lives to escape, asking only for safety.

They -- and the world -- need American leadership. I hope and expect that the Pope will urge our political leaders to provide it.

Eleanor Acer is Senior Director, Refugee Protection at Human Rights First.