Refugees Strengthen America: Q & A
Q. Should we be worried a terrorist can get into the United States through the resettlement program by pretending to be a refugee?
A. Refugees must pass through a series of security screenings, including biographic and biometric checks, to ensure they do not pose a security risk. Information confirming a refugee’s identity is checked against law enforcement, intelligence community, and other databases, including the National Counterterrorism Center, Department of Defense, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of State, and Department of Homeland Security databases. If there is doubt about whether an applicant poses a security threat, he or she will not be allowed to come to the United States. Of the 14.4 million refugees registered with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) around the world, less than one percent is referred for resettlement.
Q. Wouldn’t it be better for refugees to stay in neighboring countries where the culture is similar and they can return home someday?
Duration of Displacement
Many refugees do wish to return home someday, but the scope and scale of forced displacement today is so large that most will not be able to for many, many years. The estimated duration of protracted refugee situations has reached 25 years, up from 17 in 2003. This is far too long to live in a state of limbo with limited access to housing, education, and jobs.
Enormity of Refugee Crises Place Overwhelming Burden on Frontline Refugee Hosting Countries
The large numbers of Syrian refugees now living in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey have placed tremendous strains on those countries and their critical infrastructures.
One in four persons in Lebanon is a refugee. It hosts more than 1.19 million Syrian refugees, and the UNHCR has concluded that Lebanon has “the highest per capita proportion of refugees to population in the world,” placing “enormous pressure on the country and its people” and stretching the country’s infrastructure. Added pressure on infrastructure brought on by the number of refugees in Lebanon has “severely affected water and sanitation systems” throughout the country. Refugee families have reported walking miles to obtain clean drinking water, and using sewage water to clean, shower, and wash dishes and clothes.
The number of Syrian refugees Jordan is hosting has also heavily impacted its infrastructure—including water, electricity, sanitation, health care, and education systems. Warning that his country was at a “boiling point,” King Abdullah II of Jordan stated that the number of Syrian refugees “hurts us when it comes to the educational system, our healthcare.” The addition of Syrian children to the Jordanian education system has led to shortened class times, overcrowded classrooms, and double-shifting, in which schools operate in two shifts that serve different groups of students at different times in the day.
Turkey now hosts more refugees than any other country in the world—nearly three million. Its infrastructure is similarly buckling under the heavy strain. The Migration Policy Institute concluded in a mid-2015 report that “by early 2015, the cost [of the Turkish government providing camp-based services and economic assistance to urban Syrian refugees] had reached more than $5 billion USD, of which the international community covered some 3 percent.”
These countries include key allies to the United States and partners in counterterrorism efforts. The enormous strain of hosting millions of refugees undermines their stability and therefore U.S. national security interests as well. Supporting these allies by resettling refugees would strengthen that partnership and safeguard counterterrorism cooperation.
For more information, see our report: The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Need for U.S. Leadership.
Q. Are refugees a threat to national security?
A. As explained above, refugees are thoroughly vetted for potential security risks before they enter the United States. Rather than being perpetrators of terrorism, they are its victims. But besides the fact that refugees pose virtually no risk, a U.S. initiative to resettle Syrian refugees in the United States would actually advance U.S. national security interests.
Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon attests that increased resettlement and aid helps protect the stability of a region that is home to U.S. allies, including Jordan, Lebanon, and NATO member Turkey, all of which are hosting large numbers of refugees. The infrastructure—water, sewage, medical care, and education—of these states is overwhelmed. A major resettlement and aid initiative can relieve that strain. But left unaddressed, the strain will feed instability and trigger more violence across the region, which will have negative consequences for U.S. national security.
A bipartisan group of former high level U.S. national security leaders—including 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—also confirm the importance of resettlement in advancing U.S. national security.
They further point out—in response to proposals that would have halted Syrian resettlement—that “categorically refusing to take them only feeds the narrative of ISIS that there is a war between Islam and the West, that Muslims are not welcome in the United States and Europe, and that the ISIS caliphate is their true home.” Michael Chertoff, DHS Secretary under the administration of George W. Bush, told the Wall Street Journal, “You don’t want to play into the narrative of the bad guy. That’s giving propaganda to the enemy.”
Q. Why is the United States resettling mostly Muslims from Syria and Iraq and not Christians?
A. After refugees register with the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, its staff in the region refer only the “most vulnerable” refugees for resettlement consideration to the United States. These include survivors of torture and violence, refugees with severe medical needs or disabilities, women at risk, children at risk, survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, and refugees facing legal and physical protection risks.
Violent attacks across Syria and Iraq have placed Muslims and Christians alike in danger, with more than 11 million people killed or forced to flee their homes.
Human Rights First researchers traveled to the region and found no indication of any efforts to limit or block resettlement of Christian refugees from Syria. UNHCR staff and statistics repeatedly confirm that resettlement rates for Christians are in line with the overall registered refugee population.
Aid workers across the region confirm that a slightly higher portion of Christian Syrians are believed to have fled to Lebanon, rather than to Turkey or Jordan, because Lebanon is closer to several important areas of Christian settlement within Syria, and because there is a significant Christian community in Lebanon. While many Christian refugees have fled to Lebanon, the United States has only resettled a handful of Syrian refugees from there due to limited staff and resources in the country. The United States suspended resettlement from Lebanon altogether for about a year, but has since restarted it.
Human Rights First recommends for the United States to expand resettlement out of Lebanon and prioritize efforts to ensure that space at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut is allocated to resettlement.
Given long resettlement processing times, Syrian refugees, including any Syrian Christians, are often stuck in the backlog of Syrian cases. One recent media story profiled the multi-year resettlement wait an Armenian Christian family that fled Syria in 2012 experienced. Many refugees, including Christians, may also find their resettlement cases delayed or denied due to ISIS demands that individuals pay “taxes” to them. Payments to armed groups—even under duress—have been interpreted as “material support” to terrorist organizations under sweeping inadmissibility provisions in U.S. immigration law. While inadmissibility waivers can be granted in some cases, the entire waiver process has been plagued with delays for years.
Moreover, the United States has resettled a high proportion of Christian refugees from Iraq. These refugees, many of whom were referred to the United States for resettlement consideration by UNHCR, fell within the parameters of broader resettlement initiatives that prioritized resettlement of vulnerable refugees and Iraqis with U.S. ties.
Various resettlement experts working in the region surrounding Syria confirmed that if the United States were to institute a special resettlement path for Christian refugees that host countries would likely block these efforts. The United States should however, as it did with Iraqis, continue to prioritize resettlement of vulnerable refugees, including those vulnerable due to their religion.