A Floor, Not a Ceiling; 65,000 Syrian Refugees in FY 2017?

By Nayla Rush, September 2, 2016

The fact that the U.S. reached its FY 2016 resettlement target of 10,000 Syrian refugees came as no surprise. We predicted this administration to be right "on track" as we could not foresee President Obama presiding over a refugee summit later this month in New York before honoring his part of the bargain first.

But there is almost a month left in the current fiscal year, so the number of Syrian refugees resettled by September 30 will be larger. We are anticipating a total of 12,000 since that many were interviewed by USCIS in Jordan during the special three-month "surge operation." Of those 12,000 Syrian refugees, 10,000 have already made it to the U.S.; there is still time for the other 2,000 to get here by September 30. After all, the regional refugee coordinator at the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Gina Kassem, had clearly stated back in April that the 10,000 target was "a floor and not a ceiling, and it is possible to increase the number".

"Increasing the number" is highly encouraged by the International Rescue Committee, one of the nine "voluntary agencies" working closely with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (and funded for the most part by the State Department). IRC applauded the U.S. for meeting its goal to resettle 10,000 Syrians refugees but asked for more. In the words of David Miliband, IRC's ‎President and CEO: "IRC encourages the White House to consider this 10,000 milestone 'a floor and not a ceiling.'" (Emphasis added.)

The White House agrees, as CNN reported last month, following information it received from a State Department official:

The official said the administration can – and likely will – accept more than 10,000 applicants, as the goal is "a floor, not a ceiling," and admissions are expected to continue at their current pace for the remaining six weeks.

The "current pace" mentioned here has led to 2,406 admissions in June, 2,340 in July, and 2,449 in August. This means that the remaining 2,000 out of the 12,000 interviewed should easily make it during the month of September (maybe even before the New York summit on the 20th).

As to next year's admissions numbers, no details were given according to CNN:

The President will begin consultations with Congress next month [September] to determine how many refugees will be admitted in the 2017 Fiscal Year. He has not yet set those allocations, according to the official.

Agencies working with refugees have a number in mind. IRC's, David Miliband was precise: "We call on the Administration to welcome 140,000 refugees in 2017. The US should use this commitment to galvanize global commitments at the High Level meeting called by President Obama at the UN on 19 September." (The UN itself is hosting a refugee summit on the 19th, followed by the gathering hosted by President Obama the following day.)

The same number was used when a group of 41 non-governmental organizations assisting refugees worldwide (including the nine voluntary agencies mentioned above) wrote President Obama, urging him to accept at least 140,000 refugees in FY 2017 under the refugee resettlement program.

It is safe to assume that the increase in the number of refugees these organizations are calling for pertain mainly to Syrian refugees. After all, the Syrian refugee crisis has been at the center of attention lately, with its five million refugees seeking refuge in neighboring countries in the Middle East. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, appealed to the international community, focusing on, among other things, the need for a substantial increase in resettlement numbers for Syrian refugees:

More solutions for Syrian refugees are urgently required to alleviate the strain on host countries and to provide an alternative to smuggling networks that have made a business of the despair of refugees."

President Obama has himself shown a deep commitment to helping Syrian refugees and, as the host of the September 20 summit, intends to "galvanize significant new global commitments to...admit more refugees through resettlement and other legal pathways".

We know that, of the 85,000 refugees planned for in the current fiscal year, 10,000 are Syrians and the other 75,000 of different nationalities. If we consider 75,000 as a fixed base for non-Syrian refugee admissions in FY 2017, and subtract it from the widely discussed 140,000 target, we reach a total of 65,000 Syrian refugees possibly slated for resettlement here.

Is this number possible? We don't know what President Obama will decide this month but whatever target he sets, the final outcome it will ultimately depend on the next president.

Hillary Clinton was clear on this subject. When asked, last September, whether President Obama's plan to increase the number of Syrian refugees resettled in the United States was enough, she replied:

Look, we're facing the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II, and I think the United States has to do more, and I would like to see us move from what is a good start with 10,000 to 65,000...

Politifact assessed Donald Trump's claim that Clinton "plans to massively increase admissions (of Middle East refugees) ...including a 500 percent increase in Syrian refugees coming into our country". Politifact's ruling: "Clinton has, in fact, said that in response to the refugee crisis she would raise Obama's limit of 10,000 to 65,000. That's 550 percent more, a bit higher than what Trump said."

So, should we expect more Syrians this year? The answer is yes, and our bet is on 12,000 (at least) by September 30.

As for 2017, it comes down to whoever wins the presidential election. If it is Hillary Clinton, 65,000 Syrian refugees will probably be resettled in the U.S. in FY 2017. If Donald Trump wins, the number will probably be zero.