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Some Context For America’s Pledge To Take In 10,000 Syrian Refugees

The United States has promised to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees next year, about 7 times as many as America has welcomed since the start of the conflict.1 But the new quota still isn’t impressive compared with the number of refugees the U.S. has accepted from other countries and the scale of the Syrian crisis.

Had the U.S. made the same commitment in the past, Syria would have been in the top three nations sending refugees to the U.S. in only two out of the five most recent years for which we have data. In the 2013 fiscal year (the most recent on record), the U.S. accepted more refugees from Iraq (19,487) and Myanmar (16,299) than it plans to accept from Syria. The country’s new commitment to Syria would have placed it ahead of Bhutan (9,134) — again, in terms of 2013 numbers — but just barely.

Iraq 19,487
Myanmar 16,299
Bhutan 9,134
Somalia 7,608
Cuba 4,205
Iran 2,579
Democratic Republic of Congo 2,563
Sudan 2,160
Eritrea 1,824
Ethiopia 765
All other countries 3,285

And yet the Syrian refugee crisis resulting from its civil war is huge. As a comparison, the U.S. Agency for International Development estimates that since January 2014, 3.11 million Iraqis have been internally displaced and more than 360,000 have left for neighboring countries. The number of people displaced in Syria’s crisis is higher both in absolute terms (7.6 million Syrians internally displaced, 4 million fleeing to neighboring countries) and as a share of population. Eight percent of Iraqis are internally displaced, compared with 45 percent of Syrians. One percent of Iraqis have become refugees in neighboring countries, while 23 percent of Syrians have done the same.

Many Syrians are seeking asylum in European nations, which must — according to international law — take the migrants who reach them. But the U.S. has the freedom to set quotas, because there is no easy way for Syrians fleeing their country to reach America directly. The 1967 United Nations “Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees” forbids countries from returning a person to a country where his or her life would be in danger, but the U.S. has no legal obligation to take in refugees who haven’t reached U.S. shores.

Only people “of special humanitarian concern” to the U.S. who haven’t already been resettled in another country are eligible to apply for refugee status from abroad, and those applications are subject to geographic quotas (70,000 to 80,000 total refugees each year from 2005 to 2013). In 2013, the allocations were:

  • Near East/South Asia: 32,400 refugees
  • East Asia: 16,600
  • Africa: 15,950
  • Latin America/Caribbean: 4,400
  • Europe/Central Asia: 650

Despite the quotas, more people make it to the U.S. through the remote refugee processes than through in-person asylum applications. Because the U.S. is relatively geographically isolated, it has granted asylum to only about 25,000 people each year from 2005 to 2013. In contrast, Germany expects more than 800,000 asylum-seekers and refugees to arrive this year.


  1. About 1,500 since 2011, according to The New York Times.

Leah Libresco is a former news writer for FiveThirtyEight.