U.S. Bishops Warn of Refugee Crisis in Syria

Washington urges Syrian opposition groups to form an effective alternative to the Assad regime, as the U.S. bishops highlight the desperate plight of refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict.

WASHINGTON — As the Obama administration presses Syrian opposition groups to pave the way for a transitional government that could replace the embattled government of President Bashar Hafez al-Assad, the U.S. bishops have called on Washington to address a looming refugee crisis.

“Without more international support, the humanitarian situation, both inside and outside Syria, could reach a breaking point in the not-so-distant future,” said Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock, Ark., who led an Oct. 7-20 delegation to the Middle East, sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The United Nation’s high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) has warned that the flood of refugees from Syria could top 750,000 by the close of 2012. But members of the USCCB delegation suggested that even larger numbers could be expected, with a total of 1.5 million fleeing the country by the end of 2013.

“The international community, led by the United States, must do more to provide assistance to the refugees in order to avert a humanitarian crisis,” stated Bishop Taylor, a member of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, during a Nov. 1 media conference call.

The USCCB delegation included Holy Cross Father Daniel Groody, associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and a consultant to the USCCB Committee on Migration; and USCCB staff members Anastasia Brown, director of refugee resettlement; Beth Englander, director of special programs/populations; Natalina Malwal, transportation specialist for processing operations; and Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy and public affairs.

The USCCB delegation toured refugee settlements in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey. They spoke with relief workers and migrants from Iraq and Syrian, as well as African refugees, mostly Eritreans, who were trafficked and brutalized. The delegation met with Iraqi Christians, who had initially fled to Syria in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion. Over the past year, they have been forced to move again, amid the worsening conflict in Syria, where local Christians also fear for their futures.

“There is great fear among the Syrian Christians, who are caught in the middle of the conflict and are concerned that their community will become targets of the violence,” said Bishop Taylor.

“In fact, we heard many stories of Christians being threatened, a precursor to the sectarian violence which emerged during the Iraq War.”

On Oct. 31, The New York Times reported that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had stepped up efforts to get Syrian opposition groups to work toward the development of a transition government that could fill the political vacuum if the Assad regime is brought down.

“There has to be representation of those who are on the front lines, fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom,” Clinton told reporters during a recent trip abroad. “This cannot be an opposition represented by people who have many good attributes, but have, in many instances, not been inside Syria for 20, 30 or 40 years.”

Next week, Syrian rebel and opposition leaders are expected to meet in Doha, Qatar, to begin such an effort with the support of the Arab League and Washington.

Clinton told reporters that she sought the creation of “an opposition leadership structure that is dedicated to representing and protecting all Syrians.”

“And we also need an opposition that will be on record strongly resisting the efforts by extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution,” she stated.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, critics have attacked the Obama administration for failing to effectively intervene in Syria’s protracted civil war, which could morph into a sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims that could engulf the region. Yet experts acknowledge that it will be difficult to engineer the creation of a united opposition leadership among the disparate political and rebel groups.

Pope Benedict XVI, during his recent pilgrimage to Lebanon, urged rival political, ethnic and religious groups to overcome their differences and find common ground for the sake of peace.

The Pope gave voice to the fears of vulnerable refugees, particularly women and children, who see no respite to the conflicts that have driven them from their homes to foreign lands.

 “You know all too well the tragedy of the conflicts and the violence which generates so much suffering. Sadly, the din of weapons continues to make itself heard, along with the cry of the widow and the orphan,” the Holy Father said on Oct. 16, the final day of his visit to Lebanon.

“I appeal to the international community. I appeal to the Arab countries that, as brothers, they might propose workable solutions respecting the dignity, the rights and the religion of every human person.”

The Vatican soon announced that it would send a papal delegation to Syria, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, was selected to join the group that was called to express “fraternal solidarity” with the Syrian people and foster efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

The escalating violence in Syria resulted in a postponement of the delegation’s departure, and the USCCB has since confirmed that Cardinal Dolan will not join the group.

Nina Shea, the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, said Pope Benedict’s visit to Lebanon was important and that his strong statements underscored the danger that the Syrian conflict posed for the stability of the region and the survival of Christian minorities.

“The Pope drew attention to the fact that Christians are in peril. The West seems paralyzed and can’t speak up for them,” said Shea. “Syria is one of the four largest Christian-minority countries in the Middle East. But, after Iraq, there are fears for the survival of another Christian minority in the region. The smaller the minority gets, the more vulnerable it gets — and the more likely it will be eradicated.”

Commenting on Clinton’s efforts to bring Syrian opposition groups together, Shea noted that the “U.S. efforts are very late, but we have to somehow get control of the situation. We need to identify moderate forces and work with and support them. It won’t be easy — and may already be too late.”

Kevin Appleby, the director of migration policy and public affairs for the USCCB, suggested, in response to a reporter’s question, that a change in political leadership for Syria could pose additional problems for refugees. “There is great fear among the refugee population as to the makeup of the opposition,” including possibly radical elements. The ability of refugees to return to Syria in the future, he said, could depend on the makeup of the next government.

Sean Callahan, the chief operating officer of Catholic Relief Services, who recently returned from a trip to the region, agreed that Syrian Christians fear “that they could be marginalized and targeted.”

“They want to be seen as pro-Syria and seeking to assist all the people. There is worry that some radical groups will make this more of a sectarian conflict, and that could put pressure on more Christians to emigrate,” said Callahan, who visited refugee camps and met with local religious orders that are caring for displaced Syrians and Iraqis. CRS serves refugees from all religious groups, and often partners with local church agencies to provide assistance.

By CRS’ count, said Callahan, “There are an estimated 1.5 million Syrians who have been displaced from their homes but have not left the country. They don’t qualify as refugees.” 

In the short term, he said, “The three biggest concerns are humanitarian access, protection for women and children — the internally displaced refugees are primarily women and children — and ‘winterization,’" clothing and shelter for the cold weather.

The USCCB delegation, for its part, outlined a number of recommendations that will be highlighted in future congressional testimony.

In a statement posted on the USCCB website, the delegation called on the U.S. government to take a leadership role on the refugee issue. Washington should encourage “neighboring countries to receive Iraqi refugees from Syria,” to “expedite the resettlement cases of Iraqis referred for consideration to the United States” and “protect religious minorities fleeing the Syrian conflict.”

As the Obama administration steps up its engagement with Syrian opposition groups, the statement by the USCCB delegation underscored the anxiety of hundreds of thousands of refugees cast adrift by the Syrian conflict: “Absent an end to the fighting, Syrian refugees will remain in neighboring countries, and their numbers will increase. The international community should share the burden of caring for the refugees now rather than when it reaches a crisis point, with the potential for destabilizing the entire region."

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.