Obama’s Syria Refugee Plan: Too Little or Too Much?

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As the war in Syria grinds into its fifth year, the Obama administration’s push to admit more of the conflict’s refugees to the United States has come under fire from a vocal chorus of lawmakers concerned about the security implications of the refugee program. Aid groups, meanwhile, say the administration’s quota for Syrian refugees is not nearly enough.

The war involving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military and a plethora of other groups, including various Islamist actors and more secular forces, has created what has been described as the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. The carnage has made nearly 4.3 million Syrians refugees and displaced another 7.6 million within the country, meaning about half of Syria’s population has been uprooted.

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Credit: UN Photo / Mark Garten
A woman holds a child at Jordan's Zaatri refugee camp, which hosts tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by conflict. President Obama's pledge to accept an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next fiscal year has run into stiff opposition at home following the terrorist attacks in Paris.

The White House’s announcement in September that the United States would admit 10,000 additional Syrian refugees in fiscal 2016 — compared to the approximately 2,131 admitted since the conflict began — was met with a range of reactions. The International Rescue Committee said it was “dismayed” by what it viewed as an insufficient increase. Human rights activists point out that other countries have been far more generous taking in Syrian refugees, including Germany, Sweden, Brazil and Venezuela. Syria’s neighbors have shouldered the largest burden, with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan absorbing the bulk of Syrians fleeing the war-torn country.

But following the Islamic State-backed rampage through Paris on Nov. 13 that left 130 people dead, the pendulum swung in the opposition direction — with critics calling for an immediate halt to the Syria refugee program. Reports that one of the suicide bombers may have migrated from Syria to Europe via Greece using a falsified passport have hardened resistance in both the U.S. and Europe to admitting more Syrian refugees.

“How’s that Syrian refugee resettlement look now? How about that mass migration into Europe? Terrorism is alive & well in the world. #No,” Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) tweeted just a few hours after the attacks.

Days after the massacre, about two dozen governors also announced that they would block Syrian refugees from being resettled in their states, a move of questionable legality. And on Nov. 19, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill that could significantly slow the resettlement program by requiring top administration officials to personally verify that each refugee applicant from Iraq and Syria is not a security threat.

Despite the growing backlash over his plan, Obama has vowed to accept the refugees after they undergo a rigorous screening process. He warned against politically opportunistic rhetoric that conflates the issue of terrorism with the refugee crisis. “The people who are fleeing Syria are the most harmed by terrorism,” he pointed out, saying that “slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values.”

Nearly 50 House Democrats, however, joined 242 Republicans in voting for the measure, creating a majority that could override Obama’s threatened veto. The bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

A leading proponent of the bill is Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who has described the State Department’s U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for Syrians as a potential “federally funded jihadi pipeline” to the United States.

After the Paris terrorist attacks, McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, sent a letter to Obama urging him to suspend the program “pending a full review of the Syrian refugee resettlement program, including of the aforementioned security risks.”

Even before the attacks, McCaul repeatedly said he was concerned by potential blind spots in the vetting process of Syrian refugees.

At a Nov. 4 public appearance in Washington, McCaul told The Diplomat he was still unsatisfied with the thoroughness of the vetting process for Syrian refugees.

“We’re compassionate … [but] when I have the FBI telling me and then [DHS] back-channeling that they think this presents a security risk to the American people, I have to take that seriously — in addition to ISIS’s own words where they say, ‘We want to infiltrate the West by exploiting this program,’” he said.

ISIS, i.e. the Islamic State, has conquered large swathes of Iraq and Syria, exacerbating an already dire refugee crisis. An Islamic State operative in January told BuzzFeed News he was using the refugee calamity to get militants smuggled into Europe. With its porous borders, Europe is more susceptible to such a scheme than the United States. However, the broader U.S. resettlement process has not been entirely immune to gaps.

The Justice Department in 2011 charged two Iraqis who had resettled in the United States as refugees with a plot to send explosives to Iraq for use against Americans. The incident occurred before a search of a Pentagon database was part of the application process, according to a Los Angeles Times report. The two men are but a tiny fraction of the more than 100,000 Iraqi refugees who have been resettled in the United States.

Security and Stigma

No traveler to the United States faces more scrutiny than a refugee, according to administration officials. Under USRAP, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees refers applicants to the State Department for consideration. The applicants are interviewed by officials from the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services division, and their biometrics are run against databases at the Pentagon, FBI and national counterterrorism center for security threats. The entire process from referral to resettlement typically takes 18 to 24 months.

In contrast, refugees migrating to Europe can pay smugglers to make the dangerous but short trek to Greece or Italy, where they are processed and can continue their journey throughout the continent.

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Photo: © UNICEF / Anmar Anmar
On Oct. 9, 2014, in Iraq, refugees from the Syrian town of Kobane walk through the Gawelan refugee camp in the Kurdistan region. As of November, 4.3 million Syrians had fled the country, the majority of them ending up in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

In Oct. 27 testimony before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, USCIS Director León Rodríguez said that USCIS officials “are trained and briefed at a great level of depth in country conditions within Syria.” Despite not being on the ground in Syria, USCIS officials have accumulated a large body of knowledge on the conflict by interviewing people applying for refugee status, he said.

Hundreds of Syrian applications have either been placed on hold or denied because of red flags raised in the vetting process, Rodríguez added.

Larry Yungk, a senior resettlement officer at UNHCR’s Washington office, has lamented what he sees as a stigma against Syrian refugees. Stakeholders in the refugee crisis are working to “get past this narrative that there’s something fundamentally worse about the Syrian refugees than everybody else,” Yungk said Oct. 19 at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

While the Obama administration has taken flak from aid groups for not admitting more Syrian refugees, as a whole, the U.S. is a world leader in resettling refugees and has provided sanctuary to 3 million refugees since 1975. Many have come from unlikely places. A minority group from Bhutan, for example, makes up a disproportionate share relative to the tiny Himalayan nation’s population. Large numbers have also come from the former Soviet Union, Vietnam, the Balkans and Cuba.

America’s refugee policy has shifted over the years and is sometimes dictated by politics as much as it is by need. The political clout of exile communities or religious groups can influence whom the U.S. takes in, for example, as can high-profile media or human rights campaigns. A public outcry over the paltry number of Iraqi refugees being resettled in the U.S. after the 2003 invasion led Washington to significantly bump up the quota for Iraqis in 2008.

In the 2015 fiscal year, Iraq was among the top three countries of origins for refugees, alongside Myanmar and Somalia. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the number of refugee admissions dipped dramatically but has been steadily rebounding. For fiscal 2016, the U.S. has agreed to accept a total of 85,000 refugees from around the world. The cap would then climb to 100,000 the following year.

100,000 vs. 10,000

Humanitarian groups and some lawmakers have long pressured the Obama administration to greatly increase the number of admitted Syrian refugees to a level the groups deem commensurate with U.S. global responsibility. But their pleas will face stiff resistance from some quarters in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks.

As of early October, Brazil had issued 7,380 humanitarian visas to Syrians, while Switzerland had issued about 4,700 visas to Syrians under a family reunification program, according to U.N. data. Germany had agreed to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees under a humanitarian admission program and 18,500 under an individual sponsorship program, according to the data.

The United States has contributed $4.5 billion in humanitarian aid to victims of the conflict, the most of any country. As of September, the United States had admitted about 2,131 Syrian refugees since the war began.

A week after the White House announced its quota of admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal 2016, a coalition of nongovernment organizations sent a letter to President Obama urging him to increase that number 10-fold, to 100,000. Around the same time came a letter from more than 20 former U.S. officials from Republican and Democratic administrations calling on the White House to support admitting 100,000 Syrian refugees.

In a separate letter, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), along with over 70 House colleagues, urged the administration to admit at least 100,000 Syrian refugees, calling it a “moral duty” that would show the world that the U.S. leads by example.

But State Department officials have balked at the notion that the United States could ramp up the number of Syrian refugees it admits this fiscal year to 100,000. UNHCR is underfunded and does not have the capacity to refer so many Syrian refugees this fiscal year to the United States, a State Department official told The Diplomat. The official, who works on refugee policies, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Humanitarian groups counter that the State Department is using UNHCR as an excuse to cover for what the groups see as an insufficient Syrian refugee quota.

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Photo: © UNICEF / Ayberk Yurtsever
On Jan. 8, a woman carrying a girl wearing a light jacket stands outdoors in heavily falling snow near a tent shelter in a refugee host community in Dikmen Valley, an urban transformation project area in Ankara, Turkey, which has borne the brunt of refugees fleeing Syria. "Send us warm clothes, please," the young woman eventually whispers.

“It is certainly not the case that the U.S. is a static player here, just passively waiting for UNHCR to refer refugees to the United States,” Brittney Nystrom, director of advocacy at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, told The Diplomat. “There’s no question that if the U.S. said, ‘We are ready and able and waiting to resettle far more refugees than you are currently sending to us,’ that UNHCR would rise to that challenge.’”

“It’s actually not that easy,” the State Department official said of asking UNHCR for a surge in referrals, stressing that the U.N. agency is underfunded and struggling to cope with the scale of the refugee crisis. The majority of the State Department’s refugee referrals come from UNHCR, the official pointed out. “Most NGOs operating in the field want nothing to do with submitting a referral for a resettlement” because that would mean the NGO would be flooded with applications, the official said. NGOs would do well to more closely coordinate with UNCHR so there is no duplication in referrals, the official added.

Responding to criticism that the U.S. refugee program has not adapted to the scale of the Syrian crisis, the official said the program “doesn’t turn on a dime, it doesn’t grow quickly, but we’re trying right now to grow it responsibly.”

Programmatic practicalities aside, the political tide on refugees appears to have turned significantly since the coordinated assault on Paris.

House Democrats who voted in favor of the bill to impose tougher screening requirements on Syrian refugees told Politico that the White House hadn’t convinced them that requiring the Department of Homeland Security to do an extra layer of certification for each applicant would be too cumbersome.

Even though Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has pledged to block the House bill, the administration is still scrambling to keep Democratic defections in the Senate to a minimum. Republicans could try to tack on the refugee bill as a rider to the omnibus government spending bill that Congress takes up in December.

Before the Paris attacks, it looked like the State Department program would get a much-needed funding boost. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on Oct. 6 introduced legislation that would supply an extra $1 billion in emergency funding for the Syrian refugee crisis. The bill did not stipulate the number of refugees to be resettled in the U.S. but could offer enough funding to resettle 100,00 refugees over two years, according to Leahy’s office.

Graham, a security hawk running for the Republican presidential nomination, has deplored what he says is the low number of Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S. With such an admission rate, “we should take the Statue of Liberty and tear it down,” Graham said in September.

Since then, however, Graham has changed his tune, calling for a “timeout” in accepting new Syrian refugees in light of the Paris massacre.

Other Republicans vying for their party’s presidential nomination have seized on the Paris attacks to slam Obama’s foreign policy record as weak and to vilify Syrian refugees. GOP candidate Ben Carson likened the refugees to rabid dogs, while frontrunner Donald Trump warned that they could infiltrate the country akin to a Trojan horse. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, meanwhile, have suggested that the U.S. prioritize admitting Christian refugees over Muslim ones.

Yet human rights advocates point out that many Muslim refugees are fleeing exactly the type of Islamic extremist violence that sparked the assault on Paris.

“Sowing fear of refugees is exactly the kind of response groups like ISIS are seeking,” Iain Levine, deputy executive director for program at Human Rights Watch, told the Guardian newspaper. “Yes, governments need to bring order to refugee processing and weed out militant extremists, but now more than ever they also need to stand with people uprooted from their homes by ideologies of hatred and help them find real protection.”


About the Author

Sean Lyngaas (@snlyngaas) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 24, 2015

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