The chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Migration said the refugee situation in Syria is a “humanitarian disaster” and called on the U.S. government to increase resettlement in a statement for World Refugee Day. “The Syrian refugee crisis in the Middle East has reached a point of humanitarian disaster,” said Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, the auxiliary bishop of Seattle, on June 20. “Although the United States has provided overseas support to these refugees, other forms of relief, including possible resettlement of the most vulnerable, should be seriously considered.”

According to a United Nations estimate, approximately three million Syrians have fled the country since the civil war began there. Catholic Relief Services reported that 4.5 million Syrians have been “internally displaced” in the conflict. 

In addition, Bishop Elizondo declared the surge in child migrants to the U.S. from Central America and Mexico to be a refugee situation.

“These children are indeed fleeing for their lives and must be looked at through a protection lens, not through an enforcement lens,” he said. “We must not send them back if they have valid protection claims. It would be akin to sending them back into a burning home.” The bishop’s declaration of a refugee situation follows what experts told Catholic News Agency June 19 that at least some of the migrants could be considered refugees and thus be granted asylum. The number of unaccompanied child migrants has reportedly doubled each year since 2011. An estimated 47,000 have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border so far in 2014. The chief factor driving the migration of the children is violence in the region, reported the bishops’ office of Migration and Refugee Services. The report cited another study by the bishops’ conference, which stated that “violence and coercion, including extortion, kidnapping, threats, and coercive and forcible recruitment of children into criminal activity are perpetrated by transnational criminal organizations and gangs have become part of everyday life in all these countries, exerting control over communities.” The bishops have called on the U.S. to respond to both crises, asking the government to grant an emergency increase in the number of Syrian resettlements to 15,000 for the 2014 fiscal. In addition, the bishops pleaded for the U.S. to work for a ceasefire in Syria and “initiate serious peace negotiations.” In regard to the migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border, Bishop Elizondo asked Congress to set aside just under $3 billion for the Office of Refugee Resettlement for the 2015 fiscal year to prepare for the increase in migrants to the U.S., and establish an interagency fund to address the root causes of the migration and preempt children from their “perilous, unauthorized migration” by providing “safe and legal avenues” for them.