But 2001 was a turning point in the United States. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States passed the USA Patriot Act. As Bill Frelick, the director of Human Rights Watch’s refugee program, put it recently in World Politics Review: “[W]hen it comes to the Patriot Act’s criminalization of ‘material support’ to terrorist organizations, which was written excluding any minimal threshold: It could be a doctor providing medical care, or someone coerced—threatened at gunpoint—to cooperate with a terrorist entity.” This could disqualify any number of people in war zones, and the number of refugees admitted in the United States dipped thereafter. In fact, in 2002 and 2003, less than 30,000 refugees were accepted into the country, compared to a high of 210,000 in 1980. Later, in 2004, refugees from Somalia, Cuba, and Laos led to an uptick in admittance. The Obama administration now plans to admit 40,000 refugees from the Near East/ South Asia—including Syria—and 35,000 from Africa in fiscal year 2017, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
Yet even these numbers are well behind those of several other countries. Take Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, the three that have taken in the largest share of Syrian refugees. A June report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees noted that “in Lebanon nearly one in five individuals is a refugee” in 2015. And, for the second year in a row, Turkey “hosted the largest number of refugees worldwide,” which amounts to 2.5 million people. Germany, meanwhile, received the most applications for asylum or refugee status worldwide—more than a million asylum-seekers are estimated to have entered the country last year.
The Obama administration has meanwhile taken some modest steps toward further opening the country’s doors to those fleeing violence, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. The administration, along with the United Nations refugee agency, launched an initiative this year to identify people from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala who are eligible for refugee status, in response to an entirely different refugee crisis that burst into American newspaper headlines two years ago as tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors flocked to the U.S. border, escaping violence in their home countries. In a July 26 White House press briefing, Eric Schultz, the principal deputy White House press secretary, said: “Our goal here to conduct the resettlement process in home countries so that we’re not dealing with an influx on the border and we’re not dealing with a heartbreaking or unsustainable situation that is neither safe or orderly.” The move highlighted a push to find ways to deal with the refugee crisis around the world more broadly. U.S. companies including Goldman Sachs, Google, and Microsoft, among others, are assisting the White House after a “call to action” by the administration.
Obama’s “Leaders’ Summit on Refugees” is the culmination of many tense months concerning how to handle a problem of staggering scale and bitter politics. If Obama hopes it will yield concrete achievements from other governments on the issue, getting such cooperation from his own Congress will also be a formidable project—and not necessarily an easier one.