“The Syrian refugee crisis deserves the full attention and mobilization of the international community,” Bishop Eusebio Elizondo Almaguer, Auxiliary Bishop of Seattle, told a Senate subcommittee on human rights Jan. 7.
“With the brutal conflict and ever-growing forced migration, there is a serious lack of shelter, food, water, sanitation, education, health care and protection inside Syria and in neighboring countries that host Syrian refugees,” said Bishop Elizondo, who chairs the U.S. bishops' committee on migration.
The Syrian civil war, now in its 32nd month, has claimed the lives of more than 115,000. There are 6.5 million internally displaced Syrians, and another 2.3 million have become refugees, most of them in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.
The humanitarian crisis is “among the worst refugee crises on record,” the bishop said.
Many parents have died or have been separated from their children. Refugee girls face dangers such as sexual violence and forced marriage, while boys face recruitment back into the civil war.
Facing this, the bishops are asking that Congress work for a ceasefire in the conflict; this comes as Secretary of State John Kerry is urging a rebel group, the Syrian National Coalition, to attend the Geneva II peace talks, aimed at setting up a transitional government.
Bishop Elizondo also suggested that legislators assist countries neighboring Syria to accept and accommodate refugees; increase caps on resettlement in the U.S.; and remove “unjust impediments to U.S. resettlement” in immigration law.
He cited Catholic social teaching in support for these positions, noting that “every person is created in God's image” and Pope Francis' statement that “where there is suffering, Christ is present. We cannot turn our back on situations of great suffering.”
In August, the U.S. agreed to accept 2,000 refugees for resettlement; according to the International Rescue Committee, fewer than 100 have been resettled so far.
Bishop Elizondo called on the senators to “meaningfully increase U.S. resettlement” to at least 15,000.
“The U.S. Catholic bishops and our affiliated agencies stand ready to assist you in this effort,” Bishop Elizondo said.
He also noted that immigration law includes anti-terrorism provisions that are “overly broad” and bar applicants who have in any way supported Syrian rebel groups, even those who are moderates rather than Islamists, urging that Congress allow for case-by-case exemptions to these provisions.
The bishop also pointed out that Syrian minority groups, including Christians, are facing particular difficulties.
“These are among the most ancient and venerable Christian communities in the world that have a history of peaceful coexistence with their Muslim neighbors. They long to remain in Syria.”
The Syrian conflict began when demonstrations sprang up nationwide on March 15, 2011 protesting the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president and leader the country's Ba'ath Party.
In April of that year, the Syrian army began to deploy to put down the uprisings, firing on protesters.
The war is now being fought among the Syrian regime and a number of rebel groups, including moderates, Islamists, and Kurds.
The U.S. bishops have encouraged Congress to work to end the violence in Syria, and to help address the major humanitarian crisis facing the conflict’s more than 2 million refugees.
Syrian Civil War, Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs