AZRAQ REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan AP — After touring Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson on Saturday suggested that camps should serve as a long-term solution for millions, while other refugees could be absorbed by Middle Eastern countries.
"I did not detect any great desire for them to come to the United States," Carson told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Jordan. "You've got these refugee camps that aren't completely full. And all you need is the resources to be able to run them. Why do you need to create something else?"
The retired neurosurgeon toured the Azraq camp in northern Jordan under heavy Jordanian security, with journalists barred. Carson's campaign also limited access, not providing his itinerary.
After the Azraq visit, Carson said he didn't learn anything that gives him confidence in authorities' ability to screen potential terrorists. "What I learned is that you're going to get a different answer from everybody depending on what their slant is," he said, reiterating his opposition to allowing any Syrian refugees to come to the United States.
More than 4 million Syrians have fled their homeland since 2011, after a popular uprising erupted against President Bashar Assad and quickly turned into a devastating civil war. Most initially settled in neighboring countries, but they are largely barred from working legally and have to resort to informal, low-paying jobs if they can find employment at all.
Overwhelmed host countries, particularly Lebanon and Jordan, have balked at the idea of longer-term integration of refugees. They have complained that they are carrying an unfair burden while the international community's support has fallen short.
A $4.5-billion appeal to aid refugees in host countries in 2015 is only about half funded. The cash crunch has created increasingly unbearable conditions for Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and — to a lesser extent — in economically more robust Turkey. In 2015, hundreds of thousands of refugees moved on to Europe in hopes of a better life.
Carson called on the American people — not the U.S. government — to launch a "humanitarian drive" to raise billions of dollars that officials say is needed to improve conditions for refugees settled across several countries in the Middle East.
"All they need is adequate funding. It's really quite impressive when you go over there and see it," Carson told the AP, adding that some areas had recreational facilities, schools, electricity and indoor plumbing. "They were a lot happier. They were quite willing to stay there as long as it takes before they can get back home."
Carson's visit comes as he tries to strengthen his fluency on international affairs as foreign policy becomes a greater focus in the 2016 presidential contest. Advisers have conceded that his knowledge of global affairs isn't where it needs to be and have expressed hope that missions like his two-day trip to Jordan will help.
Carson and other Republicans have adopted a harsh tone when discussing President Barack Obama's plan to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S. in this budget year. Debate over Syrians fleeing their war-torn country erupted after a series of attacks in Paris earlier this month raised security concerns across the West.
Carson and his GOP rivals expressed concern that extremists may sneak into the U.S. among them. Last week, he likened blocking potential terrorists posing as Syrian refugees to handling "mad dogs."
He also suggested that it would be best for Middle Eastern host countries to absorb most of the millions of Syrian refugees that have fled their civil war-torn homeland.
In a separate statement, he described Syrians as "as very hard working, determined people, which should only enhance the overall economic health of the neighboring Arab countries that accept and integrate them into the general population."
And he broadened his call for financial support beyond Americans: "The humanitarian crisis presented by the fleeing Syrian refugees can be addressed if the nations of the world with resources would provide financial and material support to the aforementioned countries, as well as encouragement."
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