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USA Today -- Year of the Refugee: Column

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February 24, 2015 | By Eric P. Schwartz & M. Zuhdi Jasser

The following op-ed appeared in USA Today on February 24, 2015.

Given the record numbers of people from Syria, Iraq, Burma and elsewhere who fled their homes, 2014 could well be called the Year of the Refugee. Throughout the year, heartbreaking numbers were on the move, trapped in war zones or languishing in refugee camps. The obvious questions are what is driving the dramatic surge and how can the United States and the world respond in 2015.

As early as June of 2014, the scope of the problem became tragically evident. During that month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that, for the first time since World War II, there were more than 50 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world, half of them children under 18 years old. The UNHCR also estimates that at least 10 million people are stateless, more than one-third of them children, with a child born stateless every 10 minutes.

And early in December, the World Food Program was forced for a few days to suspend aid, mostly in Lebanon, to nearly two million Syrian refugees. The UN food agency couldn't cover the sheer number of crises convulsing the world.

It is not difficult to discern the source of this misery. Political tyranny and religious intolerance and persecution — two sides of a deadly coin — have created massive suffering. In Syria, for example, the regime's suppression of a democratic movement devolved into a struggle between the Assad government and anti-Assad rebels, which in turn has become a calamitous sectarian war. To maintain its grip on power, the government has closed ranks among his Alawite-Baathist networks and targeted opponents, largely from the country's Sunni Muslim majority. The government's indiscriminate shelling alone has cost tens of thousands of civilian lives. Meanwhile, terrorist groups, from ISIL to al Qaeda, seek to destroy religious minority communities, including Christians and Alawites, due to their faith. As a result, 3.2 million Syrians, mostly Sunnis, are now refugees.

In Iraq, ISIL has subjected the country's Yazidi and Christian minorities in the north to terrifying abuses, from slavery to murder, threatening their existence. As a result of ISIL's depredations against these and other communities, including dissenting Sunnis who refuse to adopt their interpretations of Islam, more than two million Iraqis are now refugees.

In Burma, mounting discrimination, including continued denial of citizenship and violence against Rohingya Muslims has worsened their already-bleak predicament. Today, more than 800,000 Rohingya remain stateless, a larger number than any other religious or ethnic group in the world, and thousands have fled the country in recent months.

In dealing with the humanitarian imperatives that result from refugee flight, the United States and other governments must respond effectively and generously.

To be sure, Washington has continued to play a leadership role. The administration is now providing about $6 billion annually in international humanitarian assistance, and the United States is by far the largest funder of refugee assistance worldwide.

But the United States can and should do more. While refugee numbers have increased substantially worldwide, the U.S. annual refugee resettlement ceiling — a critical life-line for refugees who will never return home — has not. The administration should increase our annual ceiling from 70,000 to at least 125,000, which would help alleviate suffering of the most vulnerable refugees from places like Syria. Washington should also provide the Department of Homeland Security and other relevant federal agencies the funding and staff to help conduct background checks, process applications in a timely manner and eliminate long delays. And the administration should ask Congress for additional support to the Department of Health and Human Services, which helps states provide social services to new arrivals. Finally, the administration should be encouraging other governments around the world to do more.

These actions reflect our values, and our proud tradition of protecting of the most vulnerable. They will also demonstrate U.S. worldwide humanitarian leadership, and communicate to people worldwide our solidarity with victims of persecution and other human rights violations.

But ultimately, the tragedy of forced displacement will end only with the rejection and defeat of perspectives that promote intolerance and create refugees in the first place.

The risks of inaction are clear. If countries fail to prioritize political tolerance, human rights and religious freedom, the result will be more deadly conflict, failed states and millions suffering and on the move.

When political leaders fully embrace the idea that freedom and tolerance are antidotes to perpetual instability and strife, the end to the refugee nightmare will be closer at hand.

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