The Double Standard in U.S. Refugee Resettlement
BY: Nisreen Eadeh/Staff Writer
In September of last year, Secretary of State John Kerry pledged to bring 85,000 refugees into the United States, including 10,000 Syrians. At the time, this number seemed impressive, despite comparisons to the pledges of European countries like Germany that said it could take 500,000 refugees in one year. Both of those pledges paled in comparison, though, to countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, without a pledge, took in nearly 4 million refugees collectively.
The U.S. has just passed its six-month mark for fiscal year 2016 and the amount of Syrian refugees the country has welcomed since October is no where near half the goal of 10,000. Between October 1, 2015 and March 31, 2016, the U.S. took in only 1,285 Syrians out of the total 29,055 refugees accepted so far. These numbers indicate that the U.S. has resettled about 34% of the refugees it plans to accept by the end of September, and a dismal 13% of the 10,000 Syrian refugees.
During the first quarter of the 2016 fiscal year, the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks took place, causing many state governors to call for a halt on accepting Syrian refugees. The first governor to ask for a pause in the U.S. refugee program was Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, even though states do not have authority over whether or not refugees can resettle there. Ironically, Michigan accepted the most Syrian refugees in the past six months, taking in 166 in total. Following Michigan was California at 127 and Pennsylvania at 117 total Syrian refugee welcomes.
Obama’s administration is trying to rid the misinformation about Syrian refugees for the concerned state governors and legislators, congressmen, and presidential candidates who think the Islamic State could infiltrate the migrants. Although these leaders are powerless to prevent refugees from entering the country, they are still promoting the false belief that Syrian refugees committed the recent terrorist attacks in Europe and the U.S., hoping that it will impact refugee legislation.
Thankfully, the refugee program is still operating, but not as quickly as it should for the U.S. to reach its resettlement goals. In February, the U.S. government opened a “surge” center in Amman, Jordan to help speed up the refugee screening process. Nearly 600 Syrians are interviewed everyday at this surge center, yet from February 1 – March 31, only 444 Syrian refugees were resettled in the U.S.
In addition, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reopened a processing center in Beirut, Lebanon in February, where DHS personnel were sent to restart interviewing Syrian refugees. This effort seems well intentioned, but it is unclear why the Beirut processing center closed in the first place.
The United Nations (UN) must first refer all refugees trying to reach the U.S. For their part, the UN has already referred over 20,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S. government between October 2015 and February 2016. While Americans are aware that the extensive background check process takes 18-24 months, sometimes longer, it is unclear why this process is taking particularly longer than refugee resettlement efforts of the past, especially since there is already a pool of applicants more than double the size of the year’s pledge.
From the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s when technology for background checks was not at all sophisticated, the U.S. took in 182,000 Vietnamese and 169,000 former Yugoslavia refugees. Both of these groups were fleeing wars and conditions just as brutal as the Syrian civil war. These large droves of refugees also faced pushback from American political leaders, but the refugee program still worked efficiently to welcome these groups regardless of the unwarrantable criticism.
Interestingly, the largest refugee group the U.S. has taken in recent history is from the former Soviet Union, of which the U.S. accepted 380,000. The U.S. was able to take so many because of a law passed in 1989, which granted special status to Jews who did not have to prove religious persecution in order to gain refugee status and leave the Soviet Union. This law went against the international definition of a refugee established by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). According to the UNHCR, a refugee is someone who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape, war, natural disaster, or persecution based on race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group.
Congress supported this change in refugee definition so much that it became a temporary law, and was applied only to one group of people. An observation like this forces an onlooker to wonder why the government shows favorability to one group over all others in a refugee program designed to consider all applicants referred by the UN. Additionally, it’s unclear why all major conflicts that provoke humanitarian crises as enormous as the Syrian civil war do not get special recognition and help from Congress.
These comparisons are put further into perspective by the Rwandan genocide, one of the deadliest and most gruesome wars in the history of the world. Occurring at the same time as the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Rwandan genocide left over 2.3 million people as refugees, but the U.S. only took in just under 1,500 Rwandans who fled ethnic persecution. So while the U.S. was making it easier for Soviet Jews not facing persecution to enter into the country, millions around the world who actually had the need for a safe haven were not granted one.
The Syrian humanitarian crisis is not a fad. It should not dominate the news only when a little boy washes up on a Turkish beach or when a boat capsizes. The Obama administration cannot let the anti-Assad stance or fear of Islamic terrorism affect those refugees who met all requirements in order to live safely in the U.S. Refugees are people in need, not a political scapegoat to incite fear and enact racist laws.
The government has six more months to fulfill their promise of bringing in a mere 10,000 Syrian refugees. With the exceptional flow of refugees moving from the Middle East to Asia Minor, this seems like the right time for Congress to pass a special law that would speed up the refugee screening process, as well an increase in the number of refugees the U.S. will welcome in fiscal year 2017.