By Deborah Amos
Displaced Syrians, who fled their homes in the city of Deir ez-Zor, carry boxes of United Nations aid at a camp in Syria’s northeastern Hassakeh province in February.
Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images
Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images
The Trump administration has condemned a suspected chemical weapons strike in Syria and is considering military action. “We are very concerned, when a thing like that can happen, this is about humanity,” President Trump said earlier this week.
But humanitarian organizations are challenging the president’s commitment to humanity when it comes to Syrian civilians — particularly those seeking refuge in the United States.
In 2016, near the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, the U.S. resettled 15,479 Syrian refugees, according to State Department figures. So far this year, that number is just 11.
“We are seeing the impact of the Trump administration’s words and policy and actions,” says Noah Gottschalk, senior policy adviser at Oxfam America. “That slams the door on refugees, and Syrian refugees in particular.”
Gottschalk says that refugee resettlement has slowed to a trickle, with only 44 Syrians admitted since October 2017. He charges that administration policies aim to dismantle a refugee program mandated by Congress.
“What about the humanity of the people who are fleeing those attacks? These are the very people who need our support,” Gottschalk insists.
Last September, President Trump dramatically reduced the annual cap for refugees from anywhere in the world to 45,000.
Arrivals have also slowed because of additional vetting measures, as well as a series of executive orders temporarily barring travel from several Muslim-majority countries and suspending refugees admissions from around the world.
Trump administration officials have said that tougher vetting of visitors and refugees were needed because of national security concerns.
U.S. federal courts have struck down parts of the bans, but much of the policies’ restrictive effects persist, says Becca Heller with the New York-based International Refugee Assistance Project.
“I think you can call it a back-door ban, except that I think it’s so blatant and in our faces that I would call it a front-door ban. I think they closed the front door to America,” Heller says.
Yet some officials including the Trump administration’s defense secretary have spoken out about Syrian refugees.
“I’ve seen refugees from Asia to Europe, Kosovo to Africa. I’ve never seen refugees as traumatized as coming out of Syria. It’s got to end,” Defense Secretary James Mattis said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday.
He said the administration is committed to internationally negotiated efforts to end Syria’s 7-year-old war, but claimed “we are not going to engage in the civil war itself.”
Mattis said President Trump had not yet decided whether to launch an attack on Syria, as it did in April 2017, when the administration said it was responding to reports the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on civilians.
“You can look back to a year ago when we did fire missiles into Syria,” Mattis said. “Some things are simply inexcusable, beyond the pale and in the worst interest of not just the chemical weapons convention but of civilization itself.”
When asked about his greatest worry if the U.S. strikes Syria again, the defense secretary cited civilian casualties.
“There is a tactical concern,” Mattis said to Democrat Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts, “that innocent people — we don’t add to civilian deaths. We are trying to stop the murder of innocent people but on a strategic level it’s how do we keep this from escalating out of control.”