Posted by Rawan Elbaba on October 01, 2015 in Blog

Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States would take in 85,000 refugees in the new fiscal year beginning October 1, and 100,000 next year. However, Obama’s decision to admit at least 10,000 Syrian refugees within the next year is meeting sharp criticism from current Presidential candidates and some members of Congress. Republican candidate Huckabee has recently come out with controversial comments about “opening the flood gates” for Syrian refugees who could be some of the “most violent and vicious people on Earth.” Other Republican candidates like Carson and Walker also bend the truth on the danger of allowing Syrian refugees into the country in opposition to Obama’s decision. Carson argues that the majority of Syrian refugees are young males who could be “infiltrated by terrorists.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, however, has data to suggest that 50.5% of refugees are women, 6.5% are males aged 12 to 17, and 51.1% are refugees under the age of 17 (38.5% of which are younger than 12 years old).  

The increased fear that refugees could be infiltrated with terrorists comes from a lack of knowledge about the refugee vetting process—and yes despite the unfounded claims among opponents of allowing refugees there is indeed a vetting process. The multipart process, which could take up to two years to complete, involves the UNHCR and three primary U.S. government agencies including the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services. The UNHCR begins the vetting process with case identification based on resettlement applications. After the preliminary assessment of the need for resettlement, a supervising officer conducts a review of the application. After this assessment, preconditions are either met for resettlement consideration and the process moves forward. Once the preconditions are met, the refugee is recommended for submission and must complete the resettlement registration form. Once a second review by an UNHCR officer is complete, the submission is then sent to the resettlement country (in this case, the United States.) Once the case is transferred from the UNHCR to the State Department, who screen the applicant and confirm their biographical information, the refugee must then go through an in-person interview with a Department of Homeland Security agent. The interview will determine whether or not the refugee seeking resettlement has a justifiable fear of being persecuted based on his or her race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a specific social group. If reasonable fear is found, the refugee will then undergo several security checks through the National Counterterrorism Center and the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, ensuring they have no ties with any terrorist groups. Refugees must also go through medical screening tests in an effort to keep diseases and infections like tuberculosis outside of the U.S. Once they receive final approval, refugees then attend a cultural orientation, followed by a process in which NGOs help with placing refugees in one of the 180 cities designated by the U.S. government for resettlement. The cities chosen for refugee resettlement are not based on ethnic or religious concentrations but rather on factors of self-sufficiency. Resettlement organizations try to place refugees in cities that have affordable housing, available jobs and translation services.

It's important to note Syrians inside Syria, or internally displaced persons, cannot apply to the UNHCR resettlement program; only refugees who have managed to travel abroad can apply. Also, the United States only resettles “UNHCR-referred persons.” The United States has repeatedly emphasized that resettlement is not the initial response they have towards situations like this. The U.S. has given over $4.9 billion in aid in neighboring countries like Jordan and Turkey. But because of the lack of progress in the ongoing Syrian conflict, the United States is under immense pressure to speed up the vetting process for those at serious risk, and admit more Syrian refugees to the U.S. However, resettlement, as shown above, is a “rigorous, multipart” process.

The process, although tedious and extensive, should be more than enough to alleviate the concerns about potential national security risks that some politicians are so afraid of. It's very important to remember that refugees are not resettling by choice but out of necessity and a lack of safety and security.  The increase to the number of Syrians refugees allowed in the country is one part of the challenge, the other is how to maintain an effective vetting process while also ensuring that people in desperate need, the vast majority of which pose no risks, are able to be resettled without excessive delays.

Rawan Elbaba is an intern with the Arab American Institute