BERLIN - The United States will increase its cap on the number of refugees it admits and resettles to 85,000 in the coming year and 100,000 in the following year, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Sunday.
The additional refugees, up from 70,000 in the current fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, will come from countries around the world. But the increase largely reflects the 10,000 Syrian refugees that the White House has promised to resettle over the next 12 months.
"This step is in keeping with America's best tradition as a land of second chances and a beacon of hope," Kerry said in announcing the increase during a visit to Berlin to discuss the Syrian refugee crisis with his German counterpart, Frank Walter Steinmeier.
Even before Syrian refugees began streaming into Europe in recent weeks, the State Department had been considering a modest increase of about 5,000 refugees, including more from Congo, where human rights abuses are rampant. At the end of every fiscal year, the State Department announces the new target number for refugees.
Though the administration can unilaterally set a numerical goal for the refugees it wants to accept, it is up to Congress to agree to fund their resettlement. In the current fiscal year, it cost $1.1 billion to bring 70,000 refugees to the United States, put them through an orientation program run by refugee charities and have them dispersed around the country. At a similar level of funding, the increase would cost at least an extra $200 million.
One of the reasons it is so expensive is that every refugee must undergo extensive background checks under security measures enacted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Those checks have been taking 18 to 24 months for the Syrians, according to State Department figures.
Refugees admitted for resettlement are selected from lists provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. So far, about 1,600 of more than 18,000 Syrians referred by the UNHCR since the conflict began have arrived in the United States - about 1,500 in this fiscal year alone. More than 10,000 are well along in being vetted, and they are expected to come in much greater numbers in the coming months.
The goals announced by Kerry still far short of the 100,000 or more Syrian refugees that some members of Congress and humanitarian agencies have urged the administration to admit.
The United States has donated $4.1 billion to humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees since the conflict broke out more than four years ago, more than any other nation. Most of it has gone to humanitarian agencies working with the refugees to provide food, medical care and shelter.
The rationale is to provide enough humanitarian aid in countries bordering Syria and inside Syria itself so that people feeling the violence and mayhem would not have to abandon the region. But even as more people have fled Syria's battlegrounds, humanitarian agencies assisting them have had difficulty raising money to fund their work. The United Nations, for example, reports a 60 percent shortfall of what it needs to provide humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. The shrinking resources to help growing numbers of people has helped propel the large flow of refugees into an overwhelmed eastern and central Europe.
The refugee crisis engulfing Europe has caused Kerry to renew his calls for negotiations that would ease Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of office and establish a transitional government. On Friday, Kerry said the United States was prepared to resume negotiations, and implored Russia to convince Assad join transition talks.
"It would be delusional to believe that President Assad can ever unite or govern a peaceful Syria," Kerry said Sunday.
Assad has the support of both Russia and Iran, and Kerry on Sunday warned that their backing is prolonging the conflict. He said that he and Steinmeier had agreed that "continued military support for the regime by Russia - or by any other country - risks exacerbating the conflict and only hinders future cooperation toward a successful transition."