With conditions continuing to deteriorate in Syria, the Obama administration is making a major policy shift by agreeing for the first time to allow thousands of new Syrian refugees into the United States, The Cable has learned.
The numbers are relatively small: just 2,000 refugees, compared to an estimated two million people who have fled Syria during the civil war. But it’s a significant increase from the 90 or so Syrian refugees who have been permanently admitted to the U.S. in the last two years. And it’s not entirely uncontroversial. The refugees, mostly women and children, will be screened for terrorist ties — a process that could take a year or more to complete.
Unlike previous efforts by the Department of Homeland Security to give temporary protected status to Syrians already in the United States, the State Department effort will bring in Syrians from overseas for permanent resettlement in America.
“Referrals will come within the next four months. We will need to interview people and perform security and medical checks,” Kelly Clements, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration, tells The Cable.
While aid workers welcome the decision to let in more refugees, concerns remain about the time it will take to process the applications and move them into the U.S. “It’s 90 degrees now, but in a few months it’s going to snow and people are going to be freezing,” Noah Gottschalk, Oxfam America’s senior humanitarian policy advisor, told The Cable. “They don’t have many options and many are living in unfinished buildings, abandoned shopping malls, schools, mosques and parking garages.”
But the eligible refugees will have to wait out the cold. By Clements’ own admission, given application processing times, “We’re not likely to see Syrian refugees into those numbers before well into 2014.”
Qualifying refugees include only the most vulnerable individuals — likely women and children — who were “exposed to everything from torture to gender-based violence to serious medical conditions” and have no intention of returning to Syria, Clements added.
Despite their vulnerable condition, even the youngest of children will be thoroughly vetted to ensure they do not pose a national security threat. It’s not that they’re worried about infants enlisting in al Qaeda. The worry is that terrorist relatives can more easily enter the United States, once they have relatives in America. “Refugees are subject to an intensive security screening process involving federal intelligence, law enforcement, defense, and homeland security agencies,” a State Department official said. “The U.S. government makes every possible effort to uphold and enhance the security screening aspects of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Refugees are among the most carefully screened of individuals traveling to the United States.”
In cases such as Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress and the White House have been wary about opening the floodgates to refugees too wide, citing concerns about terrorism. As a result, tens of thousands of refugees have been left waiting at the doors of American embassies there. Humanitarian groups are encouraging Washington to do more in Syria.
“It’s a welcome move by the U.S. but they also need to do more to help the countries supporting refugees and support their infrastructure,” said Gottschalk, who has recently visited the refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. Other major resettlement countries, such as Germany, have pledged to bring in up to 13,000 refugees since the fighting began. However, unlike in the U.S., refugees to Germany are required to return after the fighting subsides. “We’re very proud of the fact that the U.S. judges applicants on need and seek out the most needy cases,” Erol Kekic, director of immigration at the Church World Service, tells The Cable.