‘We have a moral obligation’: advocates look to Obama as refugee crisis wears on

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The US has announced a plan to expand its refugee intake but as Obama prepares for a UN summit, activists fear it is too little, too late

Parted from his parents when he was four, David Acuoth fled war-torn Sudan by walking hundreds of miles, then spent a decade growing up in a refugee camp.

Today, he has a masters degree and a successful career as a political consultant in Washington. The 29-year-old is forever grateful to the US for giving him his shot.

We are all for good screening and checking everybody, but at the end of the day we have a moral obligation to help each other, Acuoth said. Im standing on my own two feet now financially, personally and professionally, but I didnt get here by myself. Somebody had to reach down and lift me up as a refugee, so I want that done for others.

Americas reputation as a haven for people escaping conflict and persecution has taken a hammering since Acuoth and other lost boys of Sudan were taken in 15 years ago. As Barack Obama prepares to host a summit on refugee issues with world leaders at the UN general assembly in New York next week, his own administration faces a charge of too little, too late, in response to the biggest emergency of its kind since the second world war.

We have ceded leadership on this issue

The US announced on Wednesday that it would aim to take in 110,000 refugees from around the world in the coming year, a nearly 30% increase from the 85,000 allowed in over the previous year. While the move has been applauded, it is not even close to the 200,000 urged by the Refugee Council USA, a coalition of 20 non-governmental organisations.

It also compares unfavourably with neighbouring Canadas proactive approach to resettling refugees from Syrias civil war and the USs own accommodation of 207,000 people in 1980 during the fallout from the Vietnam war. Activists claim that Obama has been too slow to respond to the gathering storm, even after recently achieving his target of accepting 10,000 refugees from Syria in the last fiscal year.

I dont think that is enough because the Syrian people are suffering the crisis, Acuoth said. I think they should take more because I was a former refugee and I know how that felt. The Syrian people who dont have a country to go to deserve our support as an international community to give them refuge.

Most of the 3,000 refugees who came from Sudan to the US as lost boys have made successful lives in government, business and academia, he added. When I was a refugee, what it meant was that I didnt know that I had any other life. I thought I would just live in a camp forever. But then, when I had the opportunity to come here, I saw I value in my life and what it means to be somebody.

But some of them never made it, because the 9/11 terrorist attacks led to US borders being virtually closed to refugees.

The door has slowly edged open again in recent years. In the 12 months ending 30 September, the goal was 85,000, and in each of the three years prior, the target was 70,000.

Campaigners say much more is necessary to come to grips with the 20 million refugees worldwide. But fears of terrorism bring political risk, notably after the attack in San Bernardino, California, and incidents in Europe connected to people who had spent time in Syria. Republican governors have sought to keep refugees out of their states while the partys presidential nominee, Donald Trump, has threatened to slam the door shut again.

Ibrahim al-Assil, president and cofounder of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, argued that the US had a special responsibility after its failure to intervene in Syria, notably when Obama did not follow through on warning that the regimes use of chemical weapons would cross a red line.

Barack
Barack Obama addresses the UN general assembly last year. Photograph: Richard Drew/AP

Speaking at the Wilson Center thinktank in Washington, Assil said: Of course, the number that is being admitted to the US is very, very low, extremely low. The US on the political level committed some mistakes at least when they put the red line and then they didnt enforce that red line. So I think they should share that responsibility and they should admit more Syrians as refugees to the United States.

Even when refugees get on American soil, they face a lengthy wait to be cleared for asylum. Assil said he himself has cofounded a civil society group, cofounded a business and gained a job at a thinktank but is still in legal limbo, waiting on an asylum application filed in 2014. So imagine how difficult it is for other people as well.

Officials have said potential refugees are subject to a rigorous screening process that typically lasts two years and involves both in-person interviews and further vetting by the state department, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the defense department and US Citizenship and Immigration Services and an examination of biographical and biometric data.

Rouba Mhaissen, founder and director of the refugee initiative Sawa for Development and Aid, said: When you hear 110,000 to be admitted, this is amazing news, but between the moment this decision is taken and the moment these people arrive in the US, it can take up to two years.

The US is the worlds biggest donor to refugee programmes and provides a third of the budget for the UN high commissioner for refugees. But politicians in Europe, where some 1 million people arrived last year, have expressed concern that Washington does not appreciate the scale of the crisis.

Of the 110,000 that the US will admit in the coming year, 40,000 will come from the Middle East and South Asia. An additional 35,000 will come from Africa, 12,000 from east Asia, 4,000 from Europe and 5,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean. Some 14,000 slots do not have a refugees place of origin specified.

Mark Hetfield, president of Hias, which was created in New York in 1881 and is the oldest refugee agency in the world, said: We were pleasantly surprised at the number increase but its not nearly enough given what we should be doing or what we have done in the past. We have ceded leadership on this issue to other countries.

The system has become dominated by security apparatus and agencies, crippling the process and crying out for leadership from the White House, he added.

In Canada, by contrast, prime minister Justin Trudeau has welcomed new arrivals at the airport with the words, Youre safe at home now. If the US matched Canadas intake of refugeees in proportion to its population, the annual figure would be 250,000.

Hetfield said: I think the president has been very reactive and not paid attention to refugee policy until this year. If Obama had done four years ago what he is doing now, I think we would be in a much better place to respond to refugees. But now hes very limited in what he can do.

Washington also has been condemned for its passive approach to people fleeing a surge in violence in Central America. It announced last month that Costa Rica would offer temporary protection to Central American refugees, as American efforts had been overwhelmed since 2012 by a fivefold growth of people leaving Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

The White House has defended its actions. Josh Earnest, its press secretary, told a recent briefing: The United States has already stepped up to the plate and played an important leading role in the response, both in terms of providing more humanitarian assistance than any other country in the world, and we certainly are playing an important role here in accepting refugees from that conflict. The United States is obviously in a different place, literally, than countries in Europe. The United States is separated by a large ocean when it comes to these refugees.

So the situation that we face is different when it comes to this set of refugees. And the president does believe its important for the United States to do our part. Thats why we increased our ambition and admitted 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year. But I think the president certainly would like to see the United States continue to ramp up our commitment.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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