WASHINGTON (CN) - More than 4 million Syrians have fled their country as the conflict there enters its fifth year. Some 2 million Syrian refugees have landed in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and hundreds of thousands more have made the perilous journey by sea to get to Europe.
The sheer magnitude of the crisis has led the Obama administration to commit to admitting 10,000 additional Syria refugees over the next year, and increase the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. by 30,000 over the next few years.
As U.S. lawmakers grapple with supposed gaps in the available data to vet Syrian refugees, Courthouse News investigates the security measures in place and what people involved in the resettlement process have learned from past efforts in Iraq.
Those who work closely with refugees say it's important to distinguish them from the violence they are fleeing.
"The irony is that many of these refugees are people who have fled from extremist groups ... or a repressive regime that's been targeting civilians for years now," Eleanor Acer of Human Rights First said in an interview.
"Many of those fleeing are women with children, people who stood up for democracy, average people who were targeted because of their faith, or because of their political beliefs," Acer added.
The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees is the first agency to register and interview Syrian refugees on the ground in the countries to which they've fled. Vulnerable populations, "such as children, torture victims, widows with children," are groups who draw the most focus from the agency as resettlement candidates, Brian Hansford, a spokesman for Washington UNHCR, said in an email.
"These are people like us, teachers, doctors, farmers - no one chooses to be a refugee," Hanford stressed.
Still, this hasn't assuaged the fear of some of the security risks associated with Syrian refugees. At a Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Oct. 8, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, asked the intelligence community's top brass to address whether the United States has enough intelligence on Syrian refugees to determine whether any of them would pose a security threat to the United States.
"There is risk with bringing anybody in from the outside, but especially from a conflict zone like that," FBI Director James Comey told the committee.
Comey described the FBI's success in connecting its databases and resources to figure out what can be known about individuals, but expressed concern about "certain gaps" in the available data that he said he did not want to discuss publicly.
Similarly, Nicholas Rasmussen, deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said the intelligence picture on Syrian refugees "is not as rich as we would like it to be." The intelligence system is more effective and streamlined now, but the agency needs to adapt and predict the questions analysts must ask when intelligence is not available, Rasmussen said.
Unlike the process of vetting Iraqi refugees after the United States led an invasion there in 2003, the U.S. does not have access to Syrian government information and data.