Balancing Humanitarian & Security Challenges

The civil war in Syria has caused one of the largest displacements of people in recent history, creating humanitarian, political, and security challenges that the United States and its allies now confront. More than half of Syrians—some 12 million—are displaced. Of that number, more than four million have fled Syria’s borders, with millions living in neighboring countries in the region. Hundreds of thousands more are trying to make their way to Europe in order to claim asylum, and just 1,500 Syrians have received asylum in the United States.


Meanwhile, as European Union and American leaders work to address this flow of refugees, the Islamic State extremist group has boasted of disguising thousands of terrorists as refugees in order to infiltrate them into Western countries, and a recently released report by the House Homeland Security Committee’s bipartisan task force found that international efforts to secure borders and stem the flow of foreign fighters have been woefully ineffective.


The humanitarian and security dimensions of the refugee crisis are staggering, and reconciling both to create a coherent U.S. and global policy response is a necessary goal. BPC gathered top experts for an October discussion about how to strike this balance. Participants included the State Department’s Kelly Gauger, deputy director of refugee admissions; Larry Yungk, senior resettlement officer at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees; and Adnan Kifayat, former deputy special representative to Muslim communities at the State Department, among others.


The panel agreed that much of Washington’s equivocation comes from the fact that moral and humanitarian arguments have been dominated by security concerns and that the threat of Syrian refugee influxes is a potential pipeline for terrorists. Still, panelists noted that mismanaging the refugee crisis by not allowing more migrants into the United States could also have a damaging impact: the Syrian crisis is destabilizing the political and social fabric of countries in the region—creating a fertile breeding ground for the Islamic State, especially with close to 80 percent of Syrians now destitute. Such conditions give rise to radicalization and could pose an even greater security threat to the United States.