Nov 02, 2015

    By Bonita S. Gutierrez

    On September 10, 2015, the Obama administration announced that it will take steps to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees who have been displaced by the civil war, the brutality of which has been compounded by the deepening presence of the Islamic State in Syria. On September 21, 2015, the administration announced that the United States will accept 15,000 additional refugees from all parts of the world in 2016 and 2017, bringing the total number of refugees accepted to 100,000 in 2017, up from 70,000 accepted now. Advocates for refugees, or asylum seekers, argue that the numbers remain woefully inadequate.


    The United States is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to Syrians affected by the conflict, however, since the war there began in 2011, the United States has resettled only 1,300 Syrian refugees. This number is strikingly low given that approximately 4 million Syrians have been displaced by the war, which has to date resulted in approximately 250,000 deaths. Moreover, several European nations, particularly Germany, have pledged to accept far more. Germany has pledged to take the largest number, a total of 800,000 Syrian refugees this year alone. In May 2015, 14 Democratic Senators called on the President to accept 65,000 Syrian refugees given the acute suffering millions of Syrians face. The senators pointed out that to date, approximately 12,000 asylum applications from Syrian people have been submitted to the United States but only 1,300 have been resettled. The senators argued that there is historical precedent for the United States to accept at least half of the 130,000 refugees that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has asked Western nations to accept.


    In 2015, the United States will accept 70,000 refugees from all over the world. Of that total, 33,000 spots are reserved for asylum seekers from the Middle East and South Asia. Under the Obama administration’s plan, the total number of refugees accepted from all parts of the world will increase to 85,000 in 2016 and then to 100,000 in 2017. Of the total refugees to be resettled in 2016, an additional 10,000 spots will be reserved for Syrian refugees. This number pales in comparison, however, to the commitments made by European nations to accept far more.


    Wavering political will and lengthy background investigations are among the obstacles to resettling more Syrian refugees in the United States. Some American lawmakers have publicly questioned whether the country should accept refugees from Syria, alleging that doing so could present national security issues. As a result, the Obama administration has sought to assure the public that all asylum seekers, including those from Syria, will continue to be subject to vigorous background checks performed by a host of government agencies, including the State Department; the Department of Homeland Security and its sub-agency, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service; the Office of Refugee Resettlement; and the Central Intelligence Agency; among others. Performing background checks for refugees from Syria has proved particularly complicated given the presence of the Islamic State in Syria and the lack of United States intelligence in the country. Thus far, the average wait time for Syrian asylum seekers to be cleared has been 18 months to two years. As a result, refugee rights advocates correctly question whether the United States can successfully resettle an additional 10,000 Syrian asylum seekers in a time-effective manner and express concern that even this increase amounts to a political gesture that is insufficient to offer the Syrian people humanitarian relief from the horrifying circumstances confronting millions.


    Next week, our office will explore the largely forgotten refugee crisis from Central America.