by Mariam Iskajyan
For the thousands of Syrians currently living in the United States through temporary immigration protections, this week is filled with fear and uncertainty.
The Trump administration has said that it will determine by August 1st whether it will continue the life-saving humanitarian immigration program called “Temporary Protected Status,” or TPS, for Syrians. TPS allows individuals to legally work in the United States and receive protection from deportation when conditions—like war, famine, and natural disasters—in their country of origin make a safe return impossible. Should the administration fail to renew TPS for Syria, it would unlawfully make countless Syrians vulnerable to catastrophic hardship, including unemployment, separation from their families, arrest, detention, and deportation back to one of the worst crises of human suffering in the world. Rather than upholding the purposes of the TPS program, the Trump administration is instead toying with Syrian lives—contemplating whether it should send them back into harm’s way.
Revoking TPS for Syria would not only be immoral and tantamount to a death sentence, it would also grossly violate the legally-binding international principle of non-refoulement and make a mockery of the U.S. government’s own assessments that “no part of Syria is safe from violence.” Yet this cruelty and threat of deportation is even worse when one considers that it would also obscure our national and global responsibilities to help provide justice, accountability, and solace for survivors of this eight-year-long war.
As do any other human beings fleeing violence and oppression, Syrians seeking refuge deserve every ounce of dignity, safety, and opportunity for a better life offered by this world. People seeking refuge are victims—not drivers—of their own displacement. As a result, migration, and the ability to seek safety and a better life, is both a human right and a justice and equality issue. The Syrian people are not objects to be carelessly — and forcibly — removed and dehumanized. Their individual and shared experiences and traumas from more than eight years of conflict must warrant them, at the bare minimum, access to pathways to rebuild what they can of their lives and shape their own destinies, free from the terror of violence and insecurity.
War in Syria has claimed the lives of more than half a million people. Nearly 12 million people in the country need some form of humanitarian assistance to survive. Homes and cities have been flattened and destroyed, with civilians decimated and remaining buried beneath rubble. The conflict has produced the largest refugee and displacement crisis of our time, with approximately 6,550 Syrians—almost half of whom are children—forced to flee their homes every day. The Assad regime, Russia, and its allies continue to weaponize basic human needs, and deliberately target hospitals, schools, places of worship, and food convoys. Access to food, water, education, and medical care is severely lacking throughout the country.
Refugees who are forced to return to Syria are being deliberately targeted, arrested, imprisoned, and murdered. Yet despite this, last year the administration chose to deny Syrians who arrived in the United States after August 1, 2016, safety from deportation by only extending, and not redesignating,TPS for Syria (redesignation allows people who have more recently fled from the war, or may not have previously applied for TPS, to apply for protection). A similar fate, or worse—a complete shutdown of the program for Syrians—is feared this week.
The administration’s inhumane policies on TPS only add to the litany of other cruel and unjust U.S. immigration and refugee policies that exacerbate Syrian, and other, communities’ pain. For example, for more than two years, the Trump administration has systematically dismantled the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, imposed numerous refugee and asylum bans, accelerated raids and deportations, heightened its racist rhetoric and broad attacks on Muslims, immigrants and people of color, and barred Syrian nationals and others from entering the United States through the discriminatory and immoral Muslim ban. Together, these actions have only served to dehumanize vulnerable communities, as well as endanger, harm, and lock those seeking refuge in perpetual, often unlivable, conditions of suffering.
Syrians are also suffering because of failed and disjointed U.S. policies in the Middle East—from the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq that led to the rise of the self-described “Islamic State” (IS) to the U.S.-led coalition’s “war of annihilation” against IS in Raqqa, which resulted in “death traps” and at least 1,600 civilian casualties. Instead of owning up to the United States’ own role in Syrians’ traumas, the administration has instead cut reconstruction and other vital assistance that could help alleviate the humanitarian disaster and destruction.
TPS will not resolve the suffering and conflict in Syria. It will not hold despots like Bashar al-Assad and other perpetrators of crimes accountable for their horrific actions. It will not heal the visible and invisible scars and costs of war, reunite lost loved ones, or stop bombardment. And neither can it serve as a permanent, sustainable immigration solution for Syrians seeking safety. But it can save and protect countless lives. And it is a necessary, good-faith step towards justice and restitution for the irreparable harm and horrors Syrian communities have endured.
Instead of worsening their heartaches and traumas, we must open—and widen—pathways for these survivors to heal, build sustainable lives, and finally hold the keys to their own futures in building a brighter, more equitable, tomorrow. As the administration prepares its decision on countless Syrians’ fate this week, we must demand justice, not deportations.
Mariam Iskajyan is the Policy and Advocacy Program Manager at Win Without War. An Armenian-American immigrant, and granddaughter of Syrian-Armenian refugees, she specializes in the intersection of U.S. foreign policy, forced migration, and peacebuilding. Follow her @mariamiskajyan.