For 6,900 Syrians living in the US under a temporary protected status (TPS) since 2012, their legal stay could soon come to an end if the Trump administration decides in three weeks to terminate the program as it did with El Salvador, Haiti, and Nicaragua.
Following a decision by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Monday that ended the TPS for nearly 200,000 people from El Salvador, a sense of panic among the Syrian community has set in that they could be next.
Syria earned a TPS designation in 2012 after the war broke out, and its status was routinely renewed under the Obama administration. Today, it grants a temporary stay for 6,900 individuals due to the “violent conflict and the deteriorating humanitarian crisis continuing to pose significant risk throughout Syria.” The current TPS for Syrians expires on March 31, but US secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen has to make a decision to terminate or extend it by January 30.
Speaking to The National, a Homeland Security official said “no decision has been made and consultations are ongoing within the US Government and with other parties to assess the situation in Syria, ahead of finalising this decision by January 30th.” Asked if social media reports indicating that DHS is leaning to end the temporary status for Syrians, the official emphasised that no decision has been made yet.
For the Syrian community in the United States, however, non-governmental organisations and support groups have started both a push to renew the program, and contingency preparations in case their efforts falter.
"We are definitely nervous as we work to get a renewal this time", Muna Jondy, a legal consultant for Americans for a Free Syria (AFS), said. Ms Jondy who was directly involved in the process to obtain TPS for Syrians in 2012, and echoed concern that the does not bode well for the Syrians. The Trump administration this week terminate TPS for El Salvador after Nicaragua and Haiti, affecting nearly 300,000 individuals.
“What is distinguishable for the Syrians is that they are not fleeing a natural disaster [unlike El Salvador], but a man-made conflict that continues and we are hoping that the Trump administration draws that distinction” she said.
Ms Jondy's organisation is one of many that is trying to meet with DHS officials and present their argument. Such meeting has not been confirmed yet.
Abed Ayoub, the legal and policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination committee (ADC), that his organisation has also submitted a meeting request with the officials but has not heard back.
“They are difficult to read,” Mr Ayoub said about the Trump administration’s decision-making process. “We are holding out hope because Syria is not a state where you can send back people.”
Syrians under TPS come from all across the war-ravaged country. “They’re from Deir Zour, from Daraa, from Idlib, from Damascus and its suburbs, they’re from everywhere” said Ms Jondy. If forced to return and “if they don’t get killed by a barrel bomb, they could get detained, tortured or simply disappear.”
Ahmad Tarakji, the chair of the American Relief Coalition for Syria (ARCS) that not renewing TPS would run contrary to the state department's own human rights report on Syria, confirming that those who return could face arbitrary detentions, person returning to Syria who "unsuccessfully sought asylum" elsewhere will likely face severe penalty or forced conscription by the Syrian Government.
ARCS, a coalition of 13 Syrian-American relief organisations, issued a statement on Wednesday calling on the US government to re-designate and renew TPS for Syria. “With the continued violence in Syria, [and more than] 10,000 civilians killed in 2017 alone, and daily airstrikes, forcing TPS holders to return to Syria is unthinkable,” it read.
The United Nations has identified the number of registered Syrian refugees at five-and-a-half million since the conflict started in 2011. The Trump administration has put a cap of 45,000 for total number of refugees to be admitted to the US in 2018, but Syria is on the new list of countries whose citizens are restricted from entering the United States.
“They have no where to go ... they can’t get visas to the US, and if they lose TPS many of them will likely be stranded on borders asking for asylum,” Ms Jondy said.