Obama’s Pledge To Syrian Refugees May Take Years

The president vowed to resettle 10,000 Syrians in the U.S. over the next 12 months, but bureaucracy has already caused bottlenecks in the process

Sep 15, 2015 at 4:36 PM ET

In the four years since the Syrian civil war began the U.S. has taken in only 1,300 Syrians, despite the hundreds of thousands admitted by nations around the world. Following the mass arrivals onto European shores in recent weeks and the clamor for Western countries to do more, the White House announced that the U.S. would up its intake of Syrian refugees to 10,000 in the next fiscal year.

But extensive background check requirements and a lengthy processing procedure could mean that not only will those refugees take more than a year to arrive, but that the number that is finally admitted could be much lower.

“The U.S. background check process for Syrian refugees can last anywhere from 12 months to indefinitely,” said Becca Heller, director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, a non-governmental organization that provides legal representation to Iraqi and Syrian refugees.

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While the U.S. has admitted about 1,300 Syrians since the war began, the UN’s refugee agency has referred about 18,000. The new admissions will come from that existing pool of referrals. The State Department said in a background briefing that the cases for “more than 10,000 people” have already been prepared, and that the U.S. was “well on our way to meeting that goal.”

Still, this is not the first time the Obama administration has promised to let more Syrians into the country and fallen short. In February of 2014, the State Department and DHS eased rules that mistakenly resulted in ordinary Syrians facing charges of supporting terrorism, preventing them from getting security clearances. Later that year, the administration said it planned to “greatly expand” the number of Syrians it took in, possibly up to as many as 4,000 in the coming year. However those announcements didn’t result in noticeable increases in resettlements.

Part of the bottleneck stems from a lengthy background check that involves a complex inter-agency review process. Once the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees determines someone would be a good fit for the U.S., that person is referred to the State Department, which serves as the lead American agency to process refugees. The resettlement task force also includes the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services. Of the 1,300 Syrians who have been accepted in the U.S. in the last two years, most have been resettled in Texas, California, and Michigan. It’s not yet clear where the new rounds of Syrians will be placed.

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To be considered for admission, a refugee has to pass an in-person interview with DHS. Even though many countries don’t enforce that step, the U.S. has refused to waive that requirement which can then lengthen the time a person spends on the waiting list. The next step is a health test, which includes a screening for tuberculosis that can take up to eight weeks.

Simultaneously, officials from FBI, the Department of Defense, the National Counterterrorism Center, and intelligence agencies are brought in to the process to conduct extensive security checks. Some human rights advocates have suggested the requirements currently in place could disqualify some refugees with legitimate claims.

“To cite one issue, the process is very document dependent, and the fact is many of the refugees fled home under emergency circumstances and often didn’t have access to their personal documents,” said Geoffrey Mock, a Syria specialist at Amnesty International USA. “However, we are in touch with Syrians scheduled for resettlement who are facing a past of human rights horrors, and face increasing anxiety as the resettlement process draws out. We hope the U.S. government can take special humanitarian considerations to speed the process.”

Spokespeople for DHS, the White House, and the State Department all either declined to comment on the record or didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The announcement from the White House to take in more refugees was met with calls for the U.S. to take in even more.

“The administration’s pledge to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees is insufficient and will barely move the world before the United Nations’ goal of resettling 400,000 registered Syrian refugees in UN camps,” says Mock. “Meeting that goal is essential in keeping the refugee camps sustainable and relieving the enormous burden on the host countries.”

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Heller, of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, agrees. “Ten thousand refugees is a good start, but falls far short of meeting the acute need,” she told Vocativ. “The U.S. has traditionally been a leader in global resettlement efforts, but in the case of Syrian refugees is woefully behind.”

Chris Boian, a spokesperson for the UN’s refugee agency, praised the announcement, and the United States more generally for accepting more resettled refugees from every part of the world than any other country. He called for an increased global effort in accepting refugees and providing humanitarian aid. “This is definitely a step in the right direction,” Boian said in a telephone interview with Vocativ. “The United States should and could do more, as could all countries.”

Germany has promised to accept 800,000 in the coming year and has called on other countries in the European Union to do the same. Demonstrators across the continent have sought to pressure governments to open their doors to more people fleeing war and conflict, even as some countries like Hungary and Bulgaria build walls and fences, and enact new legislation to keep migrants out.

The vast majority of Syrians have escaped to the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Those host countries are facing mounting domestic pressure as a result of the war in Syria and the migrants they’ve been forced to take on. Mock, of Amnesty International, warns the current American response will do little to stop the bleeding. “It ensures the crisis will last for some time to come,” he said.