Foon Rhee

The Numbers Crunch: Refugee crisis will ripple across California

Syrian refugees arrive aboard a dinghy after crossing from Turkey to the island of Lesbos, Greece, on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. The migrant crisis is challenging leaders in Europe and the United States.
Syrian refugees arrive aboard a dinghy after crossing from Turkey to the island of Lesbos, Greece, on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. The migrant crisis is challenging leaders in Europe and the United States. The Associated Press

Whatever country I was in, the big story on my trip to Europe was the migrant crisis. Video of desperate Syrians being tear-gassed by Hungarian riot police was everywhere.

I came home to news that the United States is finally lending a helping hand. It’s still small potatoes to the 120,000 migrants that a divided European Union agreed this week to resettle (and that isn’t close to enough, either), but over the next year the U.S. plans to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war.

That will increase the overall refugee count from 70,000 this fiscal year to 100,000 in 2017, though that’s far fewer than after conflicts in Vietnam, Kosovo and Somalia.

As Bee colleagues Steve Magagnini and Phillip Reese reported Monday, some Syrian refugees are likely to land in the Sacramento region, largely because a major resettlement agency has been active here for decades. In recent years, Sacramento has become home to Iraqis and Afghans in danger for helping the U.S. during those wars.

I was curious about the broader picture of immigrants from that part of the world, and found a recent study that looks at just that.

As of 2013, fewer than 80,000 immigrants from Syria lived in the U.S., but about 20 percent called California home, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

When the pool is widened to the Middle East and North Africa, the total rises to about 1 million, with the biggest numbers originating from Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon. But that’s still only 2.5 percent of all immigrants in the U.S., the institute’s study says.

By compiling Census data, it found that some of the highest concentrations of immigrants from this region are in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, which all rank in the top 10 metro areas nationally. California will continue to be a magnet. Immigrants, particularly vulnerable ones, seek comfort and safety in communities with support networks of others with similar backgrounds.

The institute says there have been three waves of migration from that region to the United States. The first, from the late 1800s to the mid-1920s, was mostly Arab Christians. The second was triggered by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and revolutions in Egypt and Iraq. The third wave included more people seeking to reunite with family and to obtain better education and employment, increasing this immigrant group nearly four-fold between 1980 and 2010.

Now, it looks like we’re in a fourth wave – and violence and unrest is again the driving force.

The world, Pope Francis said, is facing the worst refugee crisis since World War II. While nearly 470,000 migrants made it to Europe this year, some 3,000 died trying.

“We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation,” he told Congress on Thursday.

As we all learned in school, the inscription on the Statue of Liberty implores: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

We have a special responsibility to give refuge to those fleeing wars we started, like Afghanistan and Iraq, or have failed to end, like Syria.

In times like these, it’s worth remembering that America is a beacon to the rest of the world – and how precious that is.

By the numbers

The highest concentrations of Middle Eastern immigrants in California metro areas, by country of origin:

  • Egypt: Los Angeles, 21,000; Riverside, 4,000; San Francisco, 3,000
  • Iraq: San Diego, 21,000; Los Angeles, 8,000; Modesto, 3,000
  • Jordan: Los Angeles, 5,000; Riverside, 2,000; San Francisco, 2,000
  • Kuwait: Los Angeles, 2,000
  • Lebanon: Los Angeles, 21,000; Riverside, 3,000; San Francisco, 2,000
  • Saudi Arabia: Los Angeles, 4,000
  • Syria: Los Angeles, 14,000; Riverside, 2,000
  • Yemen: San Francisco, 3,000

Source: Migration Policy Institute