The Process for Interviewing, Vetting, and Resettling Syrian Refugees in America Is Incredibly Long and Thorough
I should know — I’ve been doing it.
- By Devon ConeDevon Cone is a consultant focusing on humanitarian affairs and forced migration. She has worked with UNHCR and NGOs as a resettlement caseworker from 2008 to 2015 in Africa and the Middle East. She is currently conducting an in-depth evaluation of refugee admissions processes for the U.S. State Department. Follow her on Twitter: @devoncone
Something important has been lost amid the heated political rhetoric over whether or not the United States should take in Syrian refugees — and that is the extraordinarily robust and thorough process of vetting these refugees before any are resettled on American soil. I should know; for years, I’ve been interviewing refugees for resettlement, and I am currently evaluating how refugees are processed prior to arriving in the United States.
In a small, pre-fab trailer in eastern Lebanon, only 30 miles from Damascus, Amena recounted the story about how fighting in her neighborhood killed her cousin. (Some names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.) She explained that she was once a student at the top of her class who enjoyed studying English and math, but since the war began, she has been unable to attend class due to the unpredictable violence between rebel forces and the government. Amena, a shy 10-year-old Syrian from Aleppo, was talking to me as part of a resettlement interview I conducted with her family in September 2014. Her father, mother, and younger brother were all part of the “case,” which had been identified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as being particularly vulnerable and therefore in need of resettlement.
During the interview, Amena’s father described the events of 2011 which forced him and his family to leave Syria. He told me he was arrested and tortured by Syrian government soldiers simply because he was from a city that conducted anti-government protests. He told me of his then-4-year-old son — hit by shrapnel from a barrel bomb that required the amputation of one of his legs. He told me how his wife and daughter feared stepping out of their apartment given the intense fighting between the Syrian government soldiers and rebel forces within their neighborhood.
I asked hundreds of questions: “Tell me exactly what happened from the time the protests began to the time you left your home. When did you actually leave Syria? How did you leave Syria? What means of transport did you use? Were you ever involved in any peaceful protests? Were you ever involved in any violence in any way? Have you ever had communication with anyone who has used violence even in defensive means? Have you ever registered for any political party? Have you ever been involved in any military service? Have you ever given any support to any political group? Have you ever returned to Syria? What did you do for employment? What was your schooling like? What is your mother’s name? What is your father’s name? What is each of your brothers’ and sisters’ names?” And so on. And this is just a sliver of what is asked during initial UNHCR interviews; each of these questions is followed up by dozens of ensuing questions.
These kinds of interviews last many hours, require significant amount of detail, and are scrutinized for any discrepancies. The information provided by the individuals is then compared to information from reputable sources about his or her particular region. It is just the first step in a long, complex process with multiple interviews, dozens of reviews, and numerous security checks required in the resettlement process, which is known as the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).
Amena and her family are just four of the estimated 10.7 million people who have been displaced by the conflict in Syria. As of Nov. 17, more than 4 million of the displaced have been registered as refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and North Africa. In Lebanon alone, there are more than 1.3 million Syrian refugees living in a country smaller than the size of Connecticut.
While there has been enormous media attention on refugees traveling to Europe this year, the vast majority of Syrian refugees still live in countries bordering Syria. These countries — Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan — are bearing most of the burden and are struggling to provide enough resources to help refugees survive. In Lebanon, the infrastructure is overwhelmed and stretched to its limits. The government will not permit the construction of refugee camps; therefore, refugees are living anywhere they can find space. Some live in apartments in cities and towns; hundreds of thousands must make do with abandoned garages, unfinished houses, or areas the U.N. terms “informal tented settlements” — basically just bits of open land where refugees have erected makeshift shelters. In the case of Amena and her family, their home is a small tent consisting of a wood frame, a plastic tarp, and carpets lining the dirt floor. They arrived in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon in the beginning of 2012 and set up their tent on the outskirts of Bar Elias, a town of about 50,000 people that has doubled in size due to the influx of refugees.
As U.S. politicians struggle to respond to the Paris attacks of Nov. 13, the White House’s commitment to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2016 has been under fire as a national security risk. A bill passed in the House of Representatives on Nov. 19 attempts to stop this policy from moving forward. If taken to the Senate and approved, the bill would require additional and arbitrary bureaucratic checks complicating a system that has already proved its efficacy. President Barack Obama threatened that he would veto such a bill, and the administration put out a statement saying that the proposed measures “would unacceptably hamper our efforts to assist some of the most vulnerable people in the world.”
Before attempting to make such strong correlations between the threat of the Islamic State in the United States and the acceptance of Syrian refugees — as so many politicians have done — it is important to understand some keys facts about refugee resettlement in America.
The first key point is that Syrians who have fled into neighboring countries cannot apply for resettlement in the United States — they must be referred. With the exception of a few particular groups of refugees (not including Syrians), UNHCR selectively identifies the most vulnerable refugees who do not pose any threats to a resettlement country. They operate based on globally agreed-upon criteria for resettlement and look in particular for women at risk, survivors of violence and torture, and elderly refugees — to name a few of the categories.
UNHCR handpicks these refugees who are in the most need of protection only after the U.N. has collected their identity documents, recorded their bio-data information, conducted iris scans, and interviewed them to determine that they are truly in need of resettlement. When in Manila recently, Obama referred to the GOP as being “scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States.” While this was political rhetoric that overlooked the nuance of the process, what he was referring to is this resettlement criteria, which prioritizes vulnerable refugees such as women and children.
Second, when refugees are considered for resettlement in the United States, they must be outside their countries of origin, residing in countries that are unable to provide adequate protection or rights for them. In the case of Syrians, this means that the United States would never be accepting refugees from within Syria. Nor can there be resettlement to the United States from any of the European countries where refugees have fled to recently. Therefore, the resettlement of 10,000 Syrians planned for FY 2016 would be made up of vulnerable Syrian refugees who live primarily in Turkey, Jordan, and possibly Lebanon, who have been referred to the U.S. State Department by UNHCR after a thorough interview and selection process.
Following the first resettlement interview with UNHCR like the one conducted with Amena and her family, a caseworker determines that the individuals on the case meet the refugee criteria as spelled out in the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, that they face serious problems in the country they have fled to, and that there are no credibility concerns with the information they have provided. The case is then passed to UNHCR staff with higher-level expert training in refugee protection who review each case in detail. If there are any concerns about the information provided, the individuals are re-interviewed or the case is closed altogether.
When UNHCR has confidence that the individuals are strong candidates for resettlement, the agency sends a referral to a resettlement country government. The referral includes all of the information collected about each individual on the case, information about the area in Syria where they fled from, and information about why they cannot survive in their current situation. Referrals for Syrian refugees are sent to a handful of countries, the United States being one of many.
If a case is referred for resettlement to the United States, the information is received by one of nine federally funded Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs) around the world that are closely monitored by the State Department. These offices collect identity documents, create a file for each case, and then re-interview the individuals being considered. It is at this point that biographic security checks begin with U.S. security agencies — including the National Counterterrorism Center, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the State Department. These checks are repeated anytime new information is provided — and for Syrian refugees, this information undergoes an enhanced review.
In another set of interviews, U.S. citizen and immigration officers — operating under the DHS — interview the refugees and examine their information. They make the final decision as to acceptance into the program, and their decisions are reviewed at multiple levels within the department.
Finally, fingerprints are collected by U.S. government employees and screened against security agencies’ databases. If there are any red flags, the case is delayed or denied altogether. Throughout this process (and it usually takes years), refugee information is checked against new information gathered by the U.S. intelligence community and the case can be refused at any point. By the time a refugee actually enters the United States via the resettlement program, he or she has undergone at least five interviews and has had every detail of his or her biographic data scrutinized by numerous agencies.
Another important distinction to make is between resettlement and asylum. The large numbers of Syrians we have seen arriving in Europe this year have either already been registered as refugees elsewhere or have never been registered and therefore are asylum-seekers. They are hoping to be registered and subsequently interviewed by a European Union member-state government to prove that they have a legitimate fear of persecution and cannot return to their homes.
Resettlement, on the other hand, is reserved for a small number of select individuals who are screened and vetted prior to coming to the United States. They have already established that they cannot return home for fear of persecution, and the information they have provided has been fact-checked for credibility. They have also undergone the rigorous screening process as described above. This process takes on average a year-and-a-half and sometimes as long as seven years. In cases where there are legitimate concerns (say, the name of one family member pops up on a security database), the resettlement case of the entire family can be denied.
Because it takes such a long time, the 10,000 Syrian refugees who would be admitted to the United States via resettlement in FY 2016 are refugees that are already undergoing the vetting process. As of Nov. 16, UNHCR has referred 23,092 Syrian refugees for resettlement to the United States; 7,014 Syrian refugees have been interviewed by DHS officers and are awaiting clearance; and 2,174 refugees have been admitted. Due to the length of time this process takes, most of the Syrian refugees who would come to the United States over the next year through resettlement fled Syria at the beginning of the conflict — before the Islamic State had even gained prominence.
But let’s put all this in context. Less than 1 percent of the global population of refugees will ever even be considered for resettlement and undergo an initial interview by UNHCR. Out of the 59.5 million displaced people in the world today — the largest number to date since World War II — approximately 19.5 million are refugees, which means they meet a high standard of refugee criteria. Since 2011, the United States has accepted approximately 75,000 refugees for resettlement yearly, and the plan is to increase the number to 85,000 next year, with 10,000 originating from Syria. This means that each year, the United States has accepted approximately .36 percent of the world’s refugees through a rigorous resettlement process. Even with the proposed increase of 10,000 Syrians, it will be only .44 percent of the global total — and that’s if the overall population of refugees does not increase. And as for the amount of Syrians that the United States has committed to resettle, it’s still only .2 percent of the Syrian refugees registered in Turkey, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and North Africa.
When I left Lebanon in April, seven months after interviewing Amena and her family, they were still living in the same tent. They had survived a vicious winter with unprecedented snowfalls and were still awaiting word about their resettlement case. The family was struggling to survive. Because the security checks for the United States take such a long time and because Washington, at that point, was not accepting Syrian refugees from Lebanon, Amena’s case was referred to another European country. I still remember her interview well and think about the tens of thousands like her, who are far less fortunate. When leaving my office she said to me, “Maybe I will see you in your country one day.”
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