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.
Even with U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq, and the ability to cooperate with Iraqi government officials, two Iraqis with ties to al-Qaida slipped through the cracks in the refugee-vetting process.
The U.S. admitted Waad Ramadan Alwan and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi in 2009 as refugees. Fingerprint checks by the FBI, Homeland Security and Department of Defense came back clean, but those same fingerprints later turned up on remnants of improvised explosive devices gathered in Iraq.
After an undercover federal sting operation, Alwan and Hammadi admitted to having participated in attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and that they tried to send money and weapons from the United States to al-Qaida in Iraq. Both pleaded guilty to terrorism charges and received lengthy prison sentences in 2013.
Though critics of the refugee-resettlement process cite this example to highlight vulnerabilities in the vetting system, those intimately involved with the refugee-resettlement system say these examples are the exception, and that the vetting process is stringent, secure and continually improving.
“We believe we can seriously and professionally vet these people,” said Larry Bartlett, director of the Office of Refugee Admissions at the U.S. Department of State, in response to concerns about gaps in the available data to vet Syrian refugees.
“Frankly, when something cannot be corroborated, when something is not clear, that person is not approved,” Bartlett said.
Such cases might be reviewed more extensively, but if gaps in data about potential refugees can’t be filled, those applications will be denied, he added.
“We err on the side of caution,” a guidance that means the U.S. probably denies some legitimate candidates for admission, he said.
Refugees go through a stringent vetting process with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees before they get referred to countries that resettle them, Hansford said.
In the case of Syrian refugees, the United Nations gives extra scrutiny to those who had prior connections to the Syrian government or military, or those who were substantially involved in the current conflict or with the Syrian opposition.
Cases where close family members are missing or can’t be accounted for receive a closer look as well, commissioner spokesman Hansford said.
“If the questions are not answered satisfactorily or anything is unclear, then the cases could take months or even [be] pulled out of the process until or if it is resolved,” he added. Hansford said refugees suitable for resettlement can usually be identified within four to six weeks, after which the agency refers them to resettlement countries.
U.S. Homeland Security officers then interview refugees in person, on the ground, in the countries to which they’ve fled, while other U.S. intelligence agencies conduct extensive security checks.
Barbara Strack, head of refugee affairs at Homeland Security, gave written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee in early October about this process.
“The officer assesses the credibility of the applicant and evaluates whether the applicant’s testimony is consistent with known country conditions,” Strack said. “These adjudicators also interview each accompanying family member age 14 and older to determine their admissibility to the United States.”
Danna Van Brandt, a spokeswoman with the State Department’s refugee bureau said in an email that the interviews are in addition to “the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States.”
The National Counterterrorism Center, Homeland Security, Defense Department and the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center conduct those checks against their databases, Van Brandt said.
Strack told the Judiciary Committee that these checks confirm people’s identities, identify red flags in a person’s background and help shape the line of questioning during the interviews.
The process takes anywhere from 18 months to two years. This is why the U.S. resettlement process has a reputation among refugees of being long, and often leading to denials for people who pose no risk, Eleanor Acer with Human Rights First said.
“It’s probably the toughest route to the United States, not the easiest,” she said. Acer added that, as compared with other refugee populations, Syrians have a high level of identity documentation.
The FBI and Homeland Security declined to comment for this story, but Acer said she thinks some of the recent statements about data gaps in the vetting process might stem from comparisons to the amount of data the U.S. had available to vet Iraqi refugees.
“Just because we had an extra amount of information on perpetrators of violence in Iraq, it doesn’t mean the U.S. should limit itself to only admitting refugees from countries where the U.S. has troops on the ground,” she said.
The Origin of the Crisis
Some historians believe the United States bears a large portion of responsibility for helping to create the Syrian refugee crisis because of its strategy in Iraq.
Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University, said in an email that the U.S. started a domino effect when it destroyed the entire state structure in Iraq and replaced it with a “brutal, sectarian Shi’a dominated regime.”
Having alienated a significant portion of Iraq’s Sunni population, “this produced a fierce insurgency which created a huge refugee crisis and which was the incubator for al-Qa’ida in Iraq, which in turn was the progenitor of the ‘Islamic State,'” Khalidi said.
The policies of U.S. allies in Syria – including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Qatar – to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime only exacerbated the crisis, the historian added.
Using a variation of ISIL’s name, Khalidi said these policies created “the vacuum in eastern Syria into which the IS moved, entrenching itself among alienated Sunnis on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.”
This in turn helped create the refugee crisis, Khalidi said, adding that resolving it will require the U.S. – along with its allies – to end the proxy war in Syria against Iran, Russia and Hezbollah.
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