Increasing the Pace of Refugee Resettlement Does Not Cut Corners on Security
As the Washington Times recently reported, the United States reached the 5,000 arrivals mark for Syrian refugees resettled to the United States in fiscal year 2016. The administration’s pace of fulfilling its modest goal of resettling “at least 10,000” Syrian refugees had inched along until now, nine months into the fiscal year. This uptick isn’t unprecedented since arrivals often increase towards the end of the fiscal year as resettlement spaces have historically been filled close to the deadline.
A range of government officials have confirmed that efforts to reach the 10,000 goal have been achieved without compromising the comprehensive security screening measures required for all refugee arrivals to the United States. Refugees are the most thoroughly screened category of any traveler to the United States. Syrian refugees in particular undergo additional screenings above and beyond these robust procedures.
The Washington Times article cites “critics” suggesting that the increase in arrivals was achieved as the result of “corner cutting,” therefore “raising questions about screening out potential terrorists.” But government officials confirm that while they have taken steps to address some of the efficiency gaps in the vetting process, they are maintaining rigorous security screening and that "all applicants will still be subject to the same stringent security requirements that apply to all applicants for U.S. refugee resettlement."
As Deputy National Security Advisor Avril Haines explains, this same security clearance process is being run “without skipping any steps.” She notes that in fact, given the extensive vetting required for refugee admission, “If someone is seeking to harm us, coming as a refugee is perhaps the most difficult way to get in.”
Furthermore, bipartisan national security experts have repeatedly confirmed, “The process that refugees undergo in order to be deemed eligible for resettlement in the United States is robust and thorough. They are vetted more intensively than any other category of traveler, and this vetting is conducted while they are still overseas.” These expert voices include former Secretaries of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and Janet Napolitano, former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, former CIA Directors General Michael Hayden (U.S. Air Force, ret.) and General David Petraeus (U.S. Army, ret.), and former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger.
In a comprehensive report issued in February 2016, and a follow up report from April 2016, Human Rights First details how the refugee resettlement process has been unnecessarily burdened by backlogs, bottlenecks, and efficiency gaps which have contributed to significant delays in application processing, above and beyond the 18 to 24 months the process typically takes to complete.
Over the past year, U.S. agencies have begun to increase staffing levels focused on Syrian resettlement and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has sent additional officers to the region to conduct Syrian resettlement interviews. Tackling these delays and addressing the backlogs does not undermine security; in fact, it strengthens the effectiveness of U.S. processing.
A system riddled with delays is not a strong system. It is not in the security interest of the United States to have delays in security vetting, which would potentially put off the ability to identify a person who might actually pose a security threat.
The approximately 2,300 Syrian refugees who arrived in the United States in June did so after months and even years of in-person interviews and robust security vetting conducted by the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the Department of Defense, and U.S. intelligence agencies. The vetting process also checks against international intelligence community holdings from Interpol.
Interpol’s Foreign Terrorist Fighter database includes detailed identity particulars of individuals provided by 52 countries. As of September 2015, Interpol’s suspected terrorist database had more than 10,000 names. Further, Interpol’s Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) database includes details of nearly 54 million stolen, lost, blank, and other documents, including from Syria and Iraq.
Besides the fact that arrivals historically increase near the end of the fiscal year, the increased pace of resettlement reflects efforts to address systemic delays and backlogs. But additional efforts are certainly necessary.
The U.S. target of resettling 10,000 Syrians amounts to only about two percent of the 480,000 Syrian refugees in need of resettlement, and just 0.2 percent of the overall Syrian refugee population of over 4.8 million hosted by frontline states like Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. These countries’ infrastructures are strained as a result of carrying this heavy burden, threatening regional stability.
OxFam calculates that the U.S. “fair share” of Syrian resettlement should be 170,779. And as the United States struggles to reach its 10,000 benchmark, Canada has already resettled 28,640 Syrian refugees in the last nine months.
U.S. leadership in refugee resettlement would not only benefit U.S. interests, it would also advance American ideals. As 30 of the nation’s most prominent national security leaders, retired military leaders, and former government officials affirmed in a June 2016 Statement of Principles in honor of World Refugee Day, “The United States has long been a refuge for those seeking safety and freedom, and for a simple reason: Americans believe their compassion and openness are sources not of weakness but strength. The demonstration of these qualities accords with the core ideals on which our nation was founded, and on which our greatness rests.”