Amid a bloody and barbarous civil war, the number of Syrians forced to flee their country has swelled to upwards of two million — a population roughly equal to that of Houston, Texas. And with no end in sight to the horrific sectarian conflict that has torn Syria apart and left tens of thousands of people dead, that number is likely to grow.
By many accounts, the deluge of displaced Syrians flooding into Lebanon (780,000), Jordan (535,000) Turkey (500,000) and other neighboring nations has burdened state resources and international relief agencies, which have struggled to keep up with the new diaspora, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
The United States, all the while, has pledged significant financial aid to Syria, contributing $1.4 billion in emergency relief and humanitarian assistance to the war zone.
And yet, despite the Obama administration's economic boosts, the U.S. has shouldered relatively little of the refugee burden, advocates say.
"In terms of lending financial support, the response has been very positive. But in terms of providing actual refuge to refugees, we are falling dramatically short," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-CA, who has lobbied the federal government to ramp up efforts to resettle dispossessed Syrians on American soil.
Despite the fact that the U.S. government for decades has partnered with an array of voluntary agencies to find U.S. sanctuary for legions of displaced peoples, the number of Syrian exiles en route to the U.S. is "very small," said Lucy Carrigan, a spokeswoman for the International Rescue Commission, a refugee resettlement agency.
In fact, only a few dozen Syrians cast adrift by the ongoing bloodshed have resettled in the U.S. since the conflict broke out more than two years ago, according to data provided by the State Department.
The numbers tell the story: In Fiscal Year 2012, the U.S. admitted 36 Syrian refugees displaced by the civil war; in Fiscal Year 2013, it admitted 31 Syrian refugees displaced by the civil war, according to a State Department spokesperson who spoke to NBC News on background.
The State Department spokesperson said the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is working to provide permanent resettlement for nearly 30,000 Syrian refugees by 2014, "and the United States has announced it stands ready to accept referrals."
Families torn apart
Adding urgency to the refugee crisis is the vast number of Syrians who have been separated from their families in the tumult of war.
Many of refugees languishing in makeshift camps pitched on Syria's borders have relatives and loved ones already living in the U.S., said Rep. Schiff, who has called on the federal government to grant "humanitarian parole authority" to nearly 6,000 Syrian nationals with approved immigrant visa petitions and families already living in America.
"This is a way we can help people in dire need. It's a way to take a bit of the pressure off of countries shouldering the lion's share of the burden," according to Schiff, who said he represents "a lot of constituents who have families fleeing Syria."
Seven months ago, Schiff, along with Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-CA, and 71 other members of Congress, sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano calling for refugee assistance to "those who are trying to escape the increasingly dangerous situation and reunite with family members in the United States."
And on Friday evening, Schiff finally received a response.
In a copy of the letter obtained by NBC News, Brian de Vallance, Homeland Security's Acting Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs, writes that the federal government has launched "discussions" with the UNHCR and "other governments on expanded resettlement of particularly vulnerable Syrian refugees, such as victims of gender-based violence, torture and some medical cases."
But to Schiff, talk of "discussions without action" merely signals a "lack of decision."
"It's perplexing," he said. "They evidently don't want to say yes and they don't want to say no."
Terror worries cloud issue
The letter from de Vallance goes on to say that Homeland Security is "mindful that addressing such humanitarian needs must be coupled with robust security screening of refugee applicants."
Some contingents of the Syrian opposition movement are believed to have links to Islamist extremist groups and Jidahi terror movements. And anyone associated with an entity on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations is banned from entering the U.S., according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Schiff concedes that U.S. officials are likely "acting out of an abundance of caution" in conducting rigorous screenings for suspected terror ties.
And yet, he added, national security concerns "are not an excuse to not admit those who have immigrant petitions that have already cleared" — like the thousands of Syrian nationals for whom Schiff and his colleagues have advocated for months.
"It's unconscionable," Schiff said.
At least 100,000 people have died amid more than two years of brutal conflict between President Bashar Assad's regime and various opposition groups.
In addition to millions forced to flee Syria, some 4.25 million people are displaced inside Syria's fractured borders, according to the latest data. In total, roughly one-third of Syria's population has been driven from their homes.
Since the alleged chemical attack by government forces in Damascus on Aug. 21, international diplomacy has been focused on Assad's chemical weapons arsenal.
The U.S. and Russia have come to an agreement through the U.N. to destroy Assad's chemical weapons, a process which began earlier this month.
First published October 28 2013, 12:43 AM