The Obama administration will increase the number of refugees the United States is willing to accept in 2017 to 100,000, a significant increase over the current annual worldwide cap of 70,000, Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday.
The announcement came as Kerry conferred here with German officials on the wave of migrants that has swamped Europe and met with Syrian refugees who are seeking asylum in Europe.
Under the new plan, the U.S. limit on annual refugee visas would be increased to 85,000 in 2016. The cap would rise to 100,000 the following year.
The response still falls far short of the global demand for resettlement from those fleeing the Syrian war, turmoil in Iraq and Afghanistan and other conflicts. From Syria alone, 4 million people are in U.N. refugee camps outside the country, and hundreds of thousands of people from that region and Africa have been pouring into Europe.
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The Obama administration has been under pressure to accept more Syrian refugees, and Kerry said the United States would explore ways to increase the limit beyond 100,000, while carrying out background checks to ensure that the refugees have not been infiltrated by terrorists.
“We still need to do more and we understand that,” Kerry said in a joint news conference with the German foreign minister, Frank Walter-Steinmeier.
“This step is in keeping with America’s best tradition as a land of second chances and a beacon of hope,” he said, and added that it “will be accompanied by additional financial contributions” for the relief effort.
The response from the United States is unlikely to relieve much of the pressure on European nations, particularly Germany, which remains the most coveted destination for most of the arriving migrants. Other efforts to address the crisis, such as sharing distribution of the migrants among European Union members, have foundered, and in the absence of a unified and effective humanitarian and border security policy the migrants have been left to find their own way across the Continent.
The United States has taken in only about 1,500 Syrian refugees since the start of the conflict more than four years ago, while Europe has been absorbing hundreds of thousands.
The White House said this month that it would take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year, and the administration’s decision to raise the ceiling for all refugees worldwide in 2016 will allow for that increase.
Raising the worldwide ceiling to 100,000 in 2017, a senior State Department official, would enable a further increase in Syrian refugees accepted by the United States.
“The idea is to have a steep ramp up,” said the official, who asked not to be identified under the agency’s protocol for briefing reporters.
U.S. officials said the Syrian refugees accepted by the United States over the next year would be drawn from a list of some 18,000 that the United Nations prepared before the current influx of migrants in Europe.
But beside security and economic concerns, the Obama administration faces a difficult political climate in the midst of a presidential election in which many Republican voters appear to be seeking tougher immigration policies, not more welcoming. At the same time, efforts have ramped up to pressure the administration to do more.
Last week, more than 20 former senior officials, including some who served in the State Department and Pentagon during the Obama administration, urged the White House to accept 100,000 Syrian refugees.
“We urge that you announce support for a refugees admissions goal of 100,000 Syrian refugees on an extraordinary basis, over and above the current worldwide refugee ceiling of 70,000,” they wrote in a letter to President Barack Obama and congressional leaders. “With some 4 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries and hundreds of thousands of Syrian asylum seekers in Europe, this would be a responsible exercise in burden sharing.”
That letter was signed by some prominent veterans of the Obama administration: Michèle A. Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense; Derek Chollet, who served as an assistant defense secretary; Harold H. Koh, who served as the State Department’s legal adviser; Eric P. Schwartz, who was a senior refugee official in the State Department and Robert S. Ford, whom Obama named to serve as ambassador to Syria.
David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary who heads the International Rescue Committee, has called on the United States to resettle 65,000 Syrians by the end of 2016.
Kerry met with his German counterpart at Villa Boersig, a palatial German guesthouse overlooking a lake. Later, with reporters in attendance, they gathered with a small group of Syrian refugees, who asked not to be identified by name because they still have friends or relatives living in Syria.
Asked by Kerry why there have been such a large surge in migrants in recent weeks, the Syrians said they despaired of ever being able to come home and that life in refugee camps was becoming harder as food rations were cut back.
“The reason people are coming now is because they gave up hope completely,” one woman said. “We have no hope we will ever live in Syria anymore.”
”Are not five years enough for the international community to intervene, especially the United States?” a man asked.
Asked at his news conference why the United States could not accept more Syrian refugees more quickly, Kerry said budgetary constraints and vetting requirements established after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks limited the scope of the response.
“We are doing what we know we can manage immediately,” he said. But he did not rule out the possibility that more might eventually be done.
Obama has the authority to increase the refugee cap, but Congress will need to approve the additional funding. State Department officials have said that it cost $1.1 billion to accept and resettle 70,000 refugees in 2015.
Kerry’s visit came as thousands more migrants were waiting at Germany’s doorstep in Austria to either enter Germany for settlement or pass through it to get to other prosperous countries in northern Europe. On Sunday, nearly 10,000 more asylum-seekers who had pushed through Hungary overnight and had been bused to camps near Austria’s eastern border were poised to move on to Germany. Many of the migrants have identified themselves as Syrians.
In recent weeks, so many migrants have passed into Germany that local officials are scrambling to find ways to receive and accommodate them.
The German government, which expects as many as 1 million migrants to arrive there this year, with many eligible for asylum, has been pressing for a European solution to the problem, including a plan to more fairly distribute the new arrivals among the European Union countries. Interior ministers plan to meet Tuesday, and leaders Wednesday, to try to break a logjam over the plan.
State Department officials have previously said that not all of the additional refugees who would be taken in under a higher cap would be Syrians. Some will be Africans who have been threatened by human rights abuses, including some from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain has pledged to take in up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years, but only those still living in that region.
Some leading lawmakers, including Sen. Patrick K. Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is running for president, have urged the White House to take in significantly more Syrian refugees. But some Republican critics have asserted that accepting larger numbers of Syrians could pose security risks.