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Before Trump Order, Syrians Already Faced Shrinking Spaces for Refuge

Amid the revised executive order suspending refugee resettlement in the U.S., Austin Schiano explores what spaces are left for Syrian refugees in countries around the world.

Written by Austin Schiano Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A refugee child plays on the railtracks close to the refugee camp in Gevgelija on February 12, 2017, near the Greek-Macedonian border.AFP/Robert ATANASOVSKI

NEW YORK U.S. president Donald Trump signed a new executive order this week barring Syrians and nationals of five other Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the U.S. for 90 days.

The order, which goes into effect March 16, also suspends refugee resettlement to the U.S. for 120 days and caps the number of refugees to be resettled during fiscal year 2017 at 50,000.

The new travel ban replaces the January 27 executive order that sparked chaos at airports around the world, and was mired in legal challenges.

Although the new order no longer bars Syrian refugees indefinitely from the U.S., it will place at least a temporary halt on people who fled the Syrian war from being considered for resettlement in the U.S.

Furthermore, under the terms of the order, governments will have to provide the U.S. with information justifying the admission of its nationals within 50 days, something President Bashar al-Assad’s regime may be unwilling to do.

No Savior

While Trump’s ban will make it harder for Syrian refugees to get the U.S., America has never been the savior of Syrians seeking safety abroad, despite the country’s strong history of refugee resettlement.

Of the 85,000 refugees admitted to the U.S. under the Obama administration in fiscal year 2016, only 12,587 were Syrians. An additional 3,566 Syrians were admitted to the U.S. in the last three months of 2016.

Europe saw 378,000 Syrian asylum applications in 2015. As Syrians and other asylum seekers sought passage to Europe over the Aegean Sea and through the Balkan countries, hundreds of thousands arrived in countries such as Germany and Sweden. Up to September 2016, Europe received another 280,700 Syrian asylum applicants. Some European countries have far fewer Syrian asylum seekers than others – Britain, for example, received 2,102 Syrian asylum applications in fiscal year 2016.

Of course, most refugees initially flee to the nearest available place of safety, and the countries neighboring Syria have by far sheltered the largest number of Syrians. In January, the European Commission estimated that there are 2.8 million Syrian refugees registered in Turkey.

It is clearly more difficult for Syrians to reach the U.S. to make an asylum claim. The country has also already made it hard for Syrians to qualify for resettlement in the country. Despite Trump’s vague allusions to “extreme vetting,” the U.S. already has an extensive vetting process that can take up to three years to complete, placing tremendous limitations on those seeking refuge in the country.

Shrinking Spaces

Syrians now face shrinking spaces for refuge all across the world. Most Syrians fled to neighboring nations, which are overwhelmed beyond their capacity and now trying to restrict more arrivals. Turkey has closed its border at key crossing points from Syria, as has Jordan. Lebanon has tightened policies affecting Syrians that now make up around one-quarter of the country’s population.

Many Syrians set sail for Greece in 2015 and early 2016. That route has been severely restricted by an E.U. deal with Turkey and the closure of Balkan and European nations’ borders. Political battles and public fears connected to the 2015 crisis have soured the public debate over refugee resettlement. Even Brazil dismantled a proposed plan for large-scale refugee intake when a new administration took office last summer.

There are some exceptions. Canada has taken in over 40,000 Syrian refugees since November 2015. After Trump’s January 27 executive order, Canada allowed some people affected by the travel ban to extend their stay or apply for temporary status in Canada.

Some refugee advocates also had hopes, albeit tentative, that the September 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants would lead to countries doing more to help refugees in the wake of the Syrian crisis. The declaration lays out a path to negotiating global compacts on refugees and migration by 2018.

Not Only Trump

Yet it’s not only the election of Trump that threatens to undermine even the modest aims of the New York Declaration. Political upheaval in several countries around the world has raised the risk that countries may actually do less to help refugees in the future.

Trump’s executive orders and rhetoric has emboldened critics of refugee resettlement, as well as anti-Syrian and anti-Muslim sentiment around the world, from Europe to the Middle East. Opinion polls have shown support in several nations, even refugee-friendly Canada, for a Trump-style Syrian refugee ban.

Some far-right parties in Europe that praised Trump’s January 27 order are polling strongly ahead of national elections. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, which openly advocates anti-Muslim policies, tweeted: “I would do the same.” His party recently has been neck and neck with the prime minister’s party ahead of the March 15 election. In France, Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigration National Front, also praised Trump’s order. Le Pen has often been at the top of the French polls ahead of the spring presidential election.

Even countries without upcoming elections or a popular far-right party have restricted entry of asylum seekers, such as Britain’s recent closure of a scheme to take in lone child refugees.

The needs of Syrian refugees remain dire. But the spaces for them to find shelter are becoming smaller by the day.

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