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Syria's civil war created 2.5 million refugees last year — the US let in 36

2.5 million Syrians are refugees. Most live in camps. The US accepted 36 of them.
2.5 million Syrians are refugees. Most live in camps. The US accepted 36 of them.
Chris Jackson/Getty

The United States is launching a bombing campaign against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, in an effort to prevent terrorism and promote moderate governance in the region. The US bombing is just another phase in what's stretched into a years-long humanitarian crisis in Syria. And before the US started bombing the country to get ISIS out, it wasn't doing much to help Syrians who were trying to escape.

According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 2.5 million of the 2.6 million displaced Syrians living outside the country in 2013 due to the country's ongoing civil war were refugees.

But the US accepted staggeringly few refugees from Syria, or anywhere else.

According to new statistics from the Department of Homeland Security, the United States allowed under 70,000 refugees to come to the US in 2013 — from any country. And only 36 of them came from Syria. Thirty-two countries sent more refugees than that to the United States — including countries with very small refugee diasporas, like Uzbekistan and Moldova.

UNHCR Syrian refugees US

Syria's neighbors can't afford to resettle Syrian refugees

Most of Syria's refugees have fled to neighboring countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Many of the refugees live in massive, semi-permanent refugee camps, because governments in those countries don't have the infrastructure (or might not want) to fully resettle them into communities.

After three years of civil war in Syria, the camps are so large, and have been around for so long, that many of them are beginning to resemble cities. As the New York Times reported in July:

At a pace stunning to see, Zaatari is becoming an informal city: a sudden, do-it-yourself metropolis of roughly 85,000 with the emergence of neighborhoods, gentrification, a growing economy and, under the circumstances, something approaching normalcy, though every refugee longs to return home. There is even a travel agency that will provide a pickup service at the airport, and pizza delivery, with an address system for the refugees that camp officials are scrambling to copy.

But most camps aren't as advanced:

Azraq, located miles from anywhere, is strictly policed, with fixed, corrugated metal shelters in military order, dirt floors and shameful public toilets, and it has no electricity. So far about 11,000 Syrians are marooned there. The camp is planned to house more than 100,000.

Refugees at Azraq, families with small children, terrified at night without electricity to light the shelters, unprotected against the scorpions, mice and snakes, say they escaped one nightmare to arrive at another.

With a new wave of Syrian refugees — 130,000 Syrians fled into Turkey in just the last three days — the regional crisis is going to get much worse before it gets better. Syrians fleeing across the border now are more likely to be held somewhere like Azraq.

The US picks refugees based on persecution — not war

The US is much wealthier, with much more infrastructure to provide for new arrivals, than any of Syria's neighbors. But it's housing far fewer refugees than any of them. Even Iraq, in 2013, was hosting 50 times as many displaced Syrians as the United States. This includes Syrians whom the US had granted asylum or who had entered the US as refugees in the past.

The US places very strict limits on which refugees it will accept and from where. The US capped the number of refugees it would allow to come to the US at 70,000 last year — 32,000 of those were allowed to come from countries in the Near East and South Asia. (There are an extra 2,000 "emergency" refugee slots available for all regions.)

Furthermore, the US doesn't necessarily consider people legitimate refugees who are fit to enter the US just because they have fled their home countries due to war. The US definition of refugee status requires someone to be specifically persecuted by his or her government. (Here's an in-depth look at the standards for refugee status and asylum in the US.)

Many of the refugees who have fled Syria might have been persecuted by ISIS or by the government of Bashar Al-Assad. But many have simply fled because their country has gotten too dangerous. And that means the US isn't going to take them in.

The US is bombing Syria to destroy ISIS. Here's why that almost certainly won't work, explained in 2 minutes: