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US extends temporary protected status 'lifeline' for some displaced Syrians

Rights groups criticise Trump administration for failing to open TPS to Syrians who arrived in US after 2016
'Continued atrocities' in Syria necessitate protection for refugees in US, lawmakers have said (Reuters/File photo)

The United States has renewed temporary protection for some Syrian citizens living in the country, a decision that prevents the authorities from sending thousands back to their war-torn home country.

The Department of Homeland Security made the announcement on Thursday, saying temporary protected status (TPS) would be extended for another 18 months to Syrians who already hold such protection.

"The decision to extend TPS for Syria was made after a review of the conditions upon which the country's designation is based, which was ongoing armed conflict and extraordinary and temporary conditions," the department said in a statement.

About 7,000 Syrians are currently living in the US under TPS, the department said, and they will be eligible to apply to stay in the country until 31 March 2021 thanks to the mechanism.

'By establishing an arbitrary cut-off date, today's decision ignores the reality on the ground, potentially forcing thousands to return to a fundamentally unsafe environment from which people continue to flee'

- Nazanin Ash, International Rescue Committee

TPS was set to expire for Syrians on 30 September.

However, the Department of Homeland Security did not open TPS to Syrians who entered the US after 2016, a restriction previously set by Donald Trump's administration.

That decision was criticised by rights groups, who had called for TPS to be extended to thousands of other Syrians in the US without access to the programme.

"TPS provides critical safety for civilians who cannot return to their countries of origin," said Nazanin Ash, vice president of global policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee, in a statement on Thursday.

"By establishing an arbitrary cut-off date, today's decision ignores the reality on the ground, potentially forcing thousands to return to a fundamentally unsafe environment from which people continue to flee," Ash said.

"The US government itself acknowledges that 'no part of Syria is safe from violence.' Why then would it refuse to protect Syrians here in the United States from forcible return to Syria?"

What 'protected status' renewal means for Syrians living in US
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TPS was first extended to Syrians in 2012, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government launched a brutal crackdown on a popular uprising in the country.

The mechanism protects Syrians from being forcibly removed amid the dangerous conditions in their home country, and gives them the ability to work.

At the end of January 2018, the Trump administration extended TPS for Syrians for 18 months.

But it stipulated that Syrian nationals must have "continuously resided" in the US since 1 August 2016, and physically been in the country since 1 October 2016 to be eligible, among other provisions.

'No home to go back to'

Before the decision was announced on Thursday, dozens of human rights, ecumenical and advocacy groups called for TPS to be renewed and extended to Syrians who arrived in the US after 2016.

Oxfam said TPS has offered "a lifeline" to displaced Syrians "when they had nowhere else to go", while the American Relief Coalition for Syria (ARCS) added that the programme "continues to be crucial for thousands of Syrians".

More than 400,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since the uprising in Syria began.

Today, fighting between Syrian government forces and rebel groups continues, including in Idlib province, where a government offensive has killed hundreds of civilians and displaced thousands of people.

'If I go back to Syria, I literally have no home to go back to. My house in Aleppo is gone. I've lost family members and many friends'

- Masood, Syrian TPS holder living in Texas

This week, the UN Security Council condemned the killings in Idlib and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced that an investigation would be launched into attacks on hospitals in the area.

"If I go back to Syria, I literally have no home to go back to," Masood, a Syrian TPS holder living in Texas, told the ARCS, a US-based group that provides aid to Syrians living both inside and outside of their home country.

"My house in Aleppo is gone. I've lost family members and many friends. Not only that, but I am wanted by the Syrian government just because I provided humanitarian aid to internally displaced persons in 2013," said Masood, before Thursday's decision was announced.

Earlier this week, a group of US senators argued that the Syrian government's "continued atrocities" in Syria necessitate a TPS extension.

In a letter to the US State Department, the lawmakers - including Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders - called for TPS to be extended another 18 months for Syrian nationals.

They also urged TPS be extended to Syrians who arrived in the US after 2016.

"The United Nations continues to warn that 'safe, voluntary and dignified return' is not possible at this time," their letter reads.

"Should the Department of Homeland Security allow Syrian TPS designations to expire, it would force recipients and their families to make a nearly impossible choice about whether to return to dangerous conditions or stay in the United States and risk deportation."