The New York Times reports: Among the Obamas’ guests at the State of the Union address on Tuesday was Refaai Hamo, a middle-aged widower with sunken eyes, a side-swept mop of silver hair and a harrowing account of losing his wife and his daughter in an air raid over his home in Syria.
His presence in the gallery was meant to send a signal to the world that the United States — or at least this administration, in its last year in the White House — believes that people like Mr. Hamo deserve a chance to restart their lives in this country.
“The world respects us not just for our arsenal,” President Obama said in his address. “It respects us for our diversity and our openness.”
The gesture raised an obvious question: Has the United States lived up to its idea of itself as a haven for those fleeing war and persecution?
The numbers offer a partial answer, and they reflect the acute dilemmas that confront countries worldwide amid a historic global crisis.
The United Nations says that an estimated 20 million people around the world, half of them children, have fled their home countries because of conflict or persecution. The war in Syria is now the single largest source of new refugees, casting about 4.4 million Syrians out of their country since the conflict began nearly five years ago.
But unlike in 1951 — when the international refugee convention was forged in the aftermath of World War II, requiring countries to offer protection to those scattered by war and persecution — the political calculus for world leaders has sharply shifted. The costs of taking in refugees have grown and the payoffs, many feel, have diminished.
First, the numbers.
The United States has taken in around 2,500 Syrian refugees since 2012, shortly after the war began.
Canada took in more than that in the last two months of 2015 alone.
Brazil has offered what it calls “humanitarian visas” to three times as many Syrian refugees as the United States has accepted — 7,380 at last count by the United Nations refugee agency.
Switzerland has issued 4,700 special-category visas for Syrians who have family in the country. And Australia, which has come under international criticism for turning away boats of potential refugees from South and Southeast Asia, has said it will take 12,000 from Syria and Iraq.
Germany is in a category of its own, with Syrians making up the largest single group (428,500) of the 1.1 million people who were registered as refugees and asylum seekers there in 2015. [Continue reading…]