By: Julia Boccagno
April 30, 2015
Imagine a country where about 50 percent of its population has been uprooted due to four years of ongoing political strife.
For Syrians, this is no figment of the imagination; it’s reality.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Syria is the worst humanitarian crisis the world has seen since World War II, with more than 10 million civilians forced to resettle elsewhere. Lindsey Sharp, the associate director of resettlement at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), said the United States government plans on resettling about 1,000 Syrians by the end of the 2015 fiscal year, but hopes to increase this number in subsequent years.
“There’s no lack of interest in resettling Syrians,” Sharp said in an interview. “But, the U.S. [resettlement] process is a long process. The security checks are very rigorous, and the logistics of getting into some of these locations where we need to process them [the Syrians] from has been difficult.”
The screening process for refugees lasts anywhere from 18 to 24 months, according to a State Department official in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. A number of federal intelligence, security, and law enforcement agencies, such as the National Counter Terrorism Security Office, the Department of Defense, and Homeland Security, employ extensive techniques when vetting refugees. These methods include biometric fingerprinting, biographic checks and overseas in-person interviews.
These security provisions help explain why the United States has admitted a fraction of Syrians, despite the fact that 12.2 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). However, a State Department official said the U.S. only started receiving referrals in significant number in mid-2014.
He said in an interview, “We [the United States] have only resettled about 800 Syrians so far. But, we have more than 11,000 that we’ve received the files for and that we’re processing right now.”
However, Omar Hossino, the public relations and outreach director for the Syrian American Council in D.C., reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to relieve the impact of the humanitarian burden in Syria, whose conflict has claimed about 200,000 lives.
“It is going to be increasing drastically as the years go on,” he said. “We’ll start taking in a couple thousand—4,000, 5,000—as the years go on.”
Overall, humanitarian organizations and practitioners do not view resettlement as an “emergency response” to international conflict, given the extensive screening process. Rather, it is often only employed in situations where the conflict appears to be protracted—defined as lasting more than five years. However, recognizing the need, the UNHCR began to focus on resettlement for Syrians in 2014, three years after the civil war erupted.
Sharp said, “People’s frustration within the Syrian context is that resettlement is not the short-term emergency solution. It is really a last resort option when you’ve exhausted other possibilities because it’s not ideal.”
Establishing a Quota: Who Stays, Who Goes?
Every year, the U.S. State Department consults Congress in establishing the national quota for refugee resettlement. According to the 2015 Proposed Refugee Admissions Report, the United States will allow approximately 70,000 refugees from around the world to resettle within its borders. This ceiling, which is released every September after the president’s approval, has remained relatively consistent throughout recent years. Sharp said the U.S. has a track record of fulfilling its proposed quota. For the 2014 fiscal year, the United States government was just shy 13 refugees of hitting its recommended ceiling of 70,000.
Prior to consulting Congress, the State Department works extensively with the UNHCR in determining state capacity. According to Sharp, a variety of variables are taken into account, including geopolitical priorities and diplomatic concerns.
“Obviously 70,000 people is a drop in the bucket for the 13 million who are displaced,” she said. “Who the U.S. designates for resettlement may not be who has the largest number of people displaced overall. Some of it will be who we have an interest in assisting.”
Nearly 20,000 Iraqis have resettled in the U.S. in FY 2014, surpassing all other countries, according to WRAPS, a computer software system that provides updated information about refugees bound for resettlement in the U.S. Burma ranks a close second, with nearly 15,000 admissions.
Matthew Timmerman, a Middle East researcher based in D.C., attributed the low number of Syrian refugee arrivals to the prevalence of worldwide conflict.
“Each year there is a quota, and this is not the only crisis in the world right now,” he said. “There are a lot of others. So, bringing in Syrian refugees to the U.S. has a limited ability to address the overall problem. We’re talking about thousands of people, but the refugees are in the millions.”
He said, “President Obama has taken some heat for not intervening against the Syrian government earlier in the crisis, but I don’t think he ever had the political will of the American public to do that, so I wouldn’t fault him on that one.”
Continuing, Timmerman said that the intractable and distant nature of the Syrian conflict creates a sense of apathy among Americans.
“It’s perceived as—unlike a natural disaster like the earthquake in Haiti—as a very complex political, religious divide 6,000 miles away in another part of the world that people don’t fully understand.”
The Response of the International Community
According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Middle Eastern countries are bearing the brunt of the conflict. Approximately 95 percent, or roughly 3.9 million, of Syria’s refugees inhabit five neighboring countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
Despite their small size, Turkey manages to hosts approximately 1.6 million refugees, while Lebanon hosts nearly 1.1 million, which accounts for nearly 26 percent of its total population.
Hossino of the Syrian American Council said, “Turkey’s economy when compared to the United States’ economy is just absolutely nothing. So, the United States being the biggest economy on Earth, with the most money and with the most resources, can definitely take on more people than Turkey is currently taking.”
He also argued that the flow of refugees to Lebanon—a country roughly two-thirds the size of Connecticut—is completely altering the balance of society.
Despite the OCHA’s estimation that 12.2 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria, only a few countries, Sweden and Germany in particular, have contributed notable aid in terms of resettlement. According to Amnesty International, these two countries have received about 96,500 new Syrian asylum applications in the past three years. This represents 64 percent of all applications screened by the European Union.
However, Sharp of USCRI elaborated on these statistics, saying Germany is able to process more Syrians because it doesn’t offer refugees a path to citizenship like the United States does. Therefore, UNHCR refers urgent cases to Germany because the vetting process only takes about two months.
Though United States lags, according to activists, in the number of Syrians it resettles, the country makes up for it in terms of monetary contribution. USAID says the United States remains the single-largest donor of humanitarian aid, contributing approximately 3.7 billion dollars since the conflict began in 2011.
A State Department official said, “Our response has been as large or larger than anything we have ever done. It’s an indication of the seriousness in which we take the crisis.”
Still, Hossino said that failure to address the “disease” of the conflict could have lasting repercussions, including setting a horrible international precedent to dealing with future crises.
“Syria is just a slowly moving boulder that is moving off of a cliff that just keeps on getting bigger and bigger,” he said. “And with the Syrian conflict increasing, everyday there’s more deaths, there’s more terrorists organizations that are taking over, there’s more radicalization happening. The Syrian state is breaking down further. Its borders are breaking down further, and the region is becoming more and more of a crisis. This is affecting the entire world.”
Opponents say that increasing the number of Syrian refugees resettled within the United States’ borders would implicate national security, as the Islamic State’s de facto headquarters are in Syria. Recently, in January 2015, House Homeland Security committee members sent a letter to the Obama administration, condemning the decision to admit more Syrian refugees to the U.S.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), Chairman of the Committee, said, “I am worried that the [Islamic State] could exploit this effort in order to deploy operatives to America via a federally funded jihadi pipeline.”
According to Rep. McCaul, the FBI has admitted to lacking an “intelligence footprint” on the ground in Syria, meaning the U.S. government doesn’t have access to the information that is needed to properly vet refugees bound for the West.
In an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News earlier this year, McCaul reminded the American people of past security mishaps.
He said, “Remember…we had refugees coming in from Iraq, and we had two terrorists that killed Americans in Iraq that were allowed to come into the United States. And that’s with all the intelligence on the ground we had in Iraq.”
According to Sharp, these security arguments are not new. They have been vocalized in the past, especially when Iraqis and Afghans were arriving to the U.S. However, she said the screening process is “extremely extensive,” and doesn’t foresee the opposition overturning policy with these arguments.
Sharp said, “I think it’s a very small, but loud minority. I don’t think it’s the majority of anyone of the public or of Congress. It’s just kind of the loudest right now.”
The State Department echoed similar sentiments, saying that people are admitted only if the U.S. government is confident that future arrivals would not pose a threat to the country.
“The administration only made a decision to increase the admissions of Syrians when it was convinced—when all of the agencies involved—were convinced that we could do so consistent with out national security responsibilities,” a State Department official said.
In general, Sharp said that Republicans and Democrats have backed refugee policy throughout the years.
“Typically, the refugee program has had a lot of bi-partisan support,” she said. “Immigration is touchy. But, the refugee program has kind of separated itself into a humanitarian program for the most vulnerable.”
Hossino expressed similar sentiments. He said that politicians on both sides have voiced their support of increasing Syrian refugee resettlement in the U.S. He cited Rep. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) as examples.
Though some, such as Timmerman, an expert in Middle Eastern affairs, have condemned the United States for not taking in as many Syrians as it did Iraqis, Sharp expressed hope for the future.
“I think next year we’ll see a lot more arrivals,” she said. “This year since it’s just gotten started; they kind of trickle in.”
The State Department also said it is not unaccustomed to criticism of its policy, especially when it comes to the pace of its operations.
“You look at the first years of the Iraq crisis, and people criticized us for not being fast enough, and I think it just reflects that it takes a little but of time before we ramp up our system to be able to admit refugees,” a State Department official said. “There are a number of people still saying that you haven’t brought in enough Iraqis even though we brought in more than 120,000 so far.”
Nonetheless, there exists consensus regarding the role of Syrian policy in the upcoming 2016 presidential elections. Because of domestic interest in the Middle East, Tyler Thompson—policy director at United for a Free Syria—said the U.S. will be forced to address the issues precipitated by the conflict.
“The public imagination and foreign policy sort of is in ISIS and in the Iran deal,” he said. “The place where both of these worlds collide is inside Syria.”
He also added that the most recent events in Syria create a “ripe” environment for extremists to pour in from all around the world. Despite the United Nations Security Council’s statement that the use of chemical weapons would be punishable under international law, the Assad regime continues to drop barrel bombs on Syrian civilians.
“The 2016 election campaign is going to have to recognize that, and I think just because of the nature of events on the ground and how horrific the Syria war is, you’re going to have a lot of questions about it on the campaign,” Thompson said. “Each candidate is going to have to have a Syria policy in order to be taken seriously.”