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U.S. record on refugees reflects domestic and global challenges

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News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS >> 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 Hamo deserve a chance to restart their lives in this country.

“The world respects us not just for our arsenal,” President Barack 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 U.N. 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.

For the United States, as for much of the Western world, the political costs of accepting refugees are high.

Many people in the United States are worried about terrorists sneaking in through refugee programs. Crimes like the sexual assaults of women in Germany on New Year’s Eve, in which the authorities said asylum seekers were involved, led Chancellor Angela Merkel to propose tougher laws regulating asylum seekers.

Political figures on both continents have also become openly opposed to accepting Muslims in particular. Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, proposed a moratorium on the admission of Muslims to the United States, just as Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary has warned about the need to “keep Europe Christian.”

Perhaps as important, the political rewards for taking in refugees have diminished.

During the Cold War, the West scored political points by welcoming people from the Eastern bloc. It was a way to convey that the Western way of life was better and more attractive than life behind the Iron Curtain. It was one reason, historians say, that in 1980, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the United States took in as many as 207,000 refugees, many from Vietnam. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the United States welcomed tens of thousands of people as the Soviet Union was dissolving.

But America’s admission of refugees from around the world virtually ground to a halt after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The numbers have slowly crept back up in recent years, to about 70,000 in 2015. The Obama administration has set a target of 85,000 this year and of 100,000 in 2017, which as U.S. officials point out makes this country one of the most welcoming in the developed world.

But the goal of taking in 10,000 Syrians this year, as Obama has said he wants to do, is likely to be difficult. It takes an average of two years for those candidates to be screened and vetted by U.S. officials.

Most of the Syrian refugees are cramped into three neighboring countries — Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. But they are not allowed to work in some of those countries, or go to school in some places. And with donor money drying up, U.N. agencies have repeatedly slashed food rations, plunging hundreds of thousands of refugees into deep poverty. In Jordan and Lebanon, a vast majority of Syrian refugees live below the national poverty line.

Last week, the new U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, described his agency as “navigating extraordinarily difficult waters.”

“The combination of multiple conflicts and resulting mass displacement, fresh challenges to asylum, the funding gap between humanitarian needs and resources, and growing xenophobia is very dangerous,” he said.

Grandi, an Italian, called on Europe to share the numbers of asylum seekers pouring onto the Continent in a fair and equitable way. The plea seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Germany and Sweden, overwhelmed by the numbers seeking to get into their countries, tightened border controls, leaving thousands of migrants and asylum seekers stranded along the migrant trail.

On Monday, a vice president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, leaned on Turkey to do more to stem the flow of people across the Aegean Sea. By law, Europe cannot send back people who are fleeing war and persecution. Instead, it has pressed its neighbor, Turkey, to stop people from trying to reach European shores, in exchange for billions of euros in development aid.

All the while, many more Syrians are trying to flee, with Jordan reporting this week that 16,000 Syrians are in a no-man’s land in the wide-open desert along the Jordan-Syria border. Jordan is letting in fewer than 100 of them a day, mainly, Jordanian officials say, out of concern for its security.

Similar concerns affect the resettlement of Syrians in the United States. Many of the Syrian refugees hoping to be admitted to the United States are waiting in Lebanon. But U.S. officials stopped interviewing them over a year ago, out of concern for the safety of its own Homeland Security personnel, making it unclear how long it will take to screen applicants.

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