Two years into a civil war that shows no signs of ending, the Obama administration is considering resettling refugees who have fled Syria, part of an international effort that could bring thousands of Syrians to American cities and towns.
A resettlement plan under discussion in Washington and other capitals is aimed at relieving pressure on Middle Eastern countries straining to support 1.6 million refugees, as well as assisting hard-hit Syrian families.
The State Department is “ready to consider the idea,” an official from the department said, if the administration receives a formal request from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, which is the usual procedure.
The United States usually accepts about half the refugees that the U.N. agency proposes for resettlement. California has historically taken the largest share, but Illinois, Florida, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia are also popular destinations.
U.N. refugee officials, diplomats and nongovernmental relief groups plan to discuss possible resettlement schemes at a high-level meeting this week in Geneva. Germany already has committed to taking 5,000 people.
Homeland security officials require careful vetting of refugees, with multiple interviews and background checks before they are allowed to enter the country. Under normal circumstances, the screening process can take a year or longer.
U.S. officials are likely to be extra careful with Syrian refugees. As Islamic militants take a more prominent role in the rebel forces, officials worry about fighters with Al Qaeda ties trying to enter the country. Two resettled Iraqis were convicted of trying to send arms to Al Qaeda from their home in Bowling Green, Ky.
Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, which have absorbed the bulk of the refugees, worry that a resettlement plan could actually widen the flood if Syrians see a chance for a better life in North America, Europe or Australia.
Jordan and Lebanon each have taken in about 500,000 refugees and Turkey has more than 375,000, according to the U.N. refugee agency. It predicts that the total number of refugees will double to 3.2 million by the end of the year.
Turkey already has demanded that the West take some its refugees, even proposing an airlift to fly them abroad. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has faced angry protests against his government for giving refuge to so many Syrians, declared last month, “We are the first victims of the Syrian situation.”