Shadow Government

It’s Time for the United States to Take in Syrian Refugees

It's not just a question of doing the right thing — it's also a question of doing what's best for the United States in the long run.


Security considerations are often complicated — full of tradeoffs between near-term threats but also those potential dangers that are further down the line. As the United States now considers the immediate risks of admitting refugees fleeing conflict in the Syria, I would also urge lawmakers to pause and consider the long-term threats facing our country if we fail to act and admit Syrian refugees.

Although only a recent subject of press attention, the Syrian refugee crisis is regrettably not new. Since the start of the Syrian civil war in March 2011, the world has witnessed the largest refugee crisis since World War II. The U.N. estimates that now more than 12 million Syrians have been forced from their homes by the ongoing conflict. Many are children. Of the 12 million, 7.6 million are internally displaced within Syria and more than half of that number in places inaccessible to aid organizations where they struggle without food, water and medicine. The remaining 4 million Syrians have fled as refugees mostly to neighboring countries: 1.9 million are in Turkey, 1.1 million in Lebanon, 630,000 in Jordan, and 250,000 are in Iraq, in addition to Iraq’s own internally displaced population. Syrian refugees now account for more than half of all migrants seeking refuge in Europe, and the flow continues to rise: according to World Vision, a humanitarian aid organization, approximately 700,000 have passed Europe’s borders so far in 2015 of which more than 441,000 were from Syria.

According to World Vision, it is estimated that between 2.1 and 2.4 million Syrian school children are missing out on their education because they are refugees or internally displaced, or because between 5,000 and 14,000 Syrian schools have been damaged, destroyed, or occupied since the 2011 start of the civil war. In December 2013, UNICEF reported that the decline in Syrian childhood education has been the sharpest and most rapid in the history of the region. Children are suffering from malnutrition, disease, and dehydration. And worse, these children are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation. In fact, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2015 Trafficking In Person’s Report warring parties in Syria are forcibly recruiting children to serve as fighters, human shields, and in support roles.

There are legitimate security challenges and concerns about admitting Syrian refugees to the United States. But I raise the plight of Syrian children because I believe our failure to act urgently will represent a potential longer-term threat to America’s national security.

Syrian children not only continue to suffer themselves but they also are bearing witness to horrible atrocities committed against their parents, siblings, and families as they are barrel bombed and systematically exterminated by the Assad regime or raped, executed, and abused by terrorists. While more than 250,000 Syrians have been murdered these Syrian children have been left abandoned and uneducated by a world that has turned its back and remained silent as they become a lost generation. According to the World Vision, 12,000 of the dead are children and 2,000 of those are children under the age of 10. Their peers will grow up to be, as many already are, angry, alienated and therefore vulnerable to recruitment by al Qaeda, al Nusra, the Islamic State or whatever Islamic extremist group comes next.

As the United States has done before, I believe it must use all instruments of its national power to mitigate the immediate risk presented by admitting Syrian refugees — but it should urgently move forward nonetheless. Those not moved to act by the moral and humanitarian imperative, should consider acting now if only to mitigate a future potential national security threat.

The current security risk can be mitigated, but it cannot be eliminated. But being paralyzed by that risk is the wrong response: If the citizens of the United States weren’t willing to tolerate any risk, the country would be forced to shutter its borders. But that approach is neither practical, possible, nor wise. And the risks inherent in sheltering these refugees are manageable with the aid of technology and the support and assistance of our foreign partners and allies.

The responsibility and burden for vetting Syrian refugees will fall initially on the State Department, however security screening must be done by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies. These agencies have done this most recently with refugee and asylum seekers fleeing the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The burden on their resources is substantial and Congress must ensure that these agencies are given the necessary additional resources to perform these duties comprehensively and effectively. To be certain, the risk does not end with the initial vetting of these refugees. Once resettled in the United States, the FBI and law enforcement agencies must devote continuing resources to ensure that refugees do not turn and use their presence inside the country to do us harm.

Because of the conditions Syrian refugees are fleeing they are often without the most basic identifying documents: birth certificates, passports, or national identification cards. In these circumstances, all U.S. agencies will have for vetting is biometrics and names. Fortunately, there are dozens of U.S. databases that will support and assist even this kind of limited vetting within: the State Department; the Department of Homeland Security; the National Counterterrorism Center; the Terrorist Screening Center; the FBI, the intelligence community and the Department of Defense.

During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the FBI, working with the U.S. military, collected fingerprints and biometrics from those imprisoned or detained and released. In addition, latent fingerprints were lifted and retained from the explosive debris and improvised explosive devices (IED). These databases have proved especially important in identifying security threats.

By way of example, two male Iraqi refugees, who arrived in the U.S. in 2009 and were living in Kentucky were arrested and convicted in 2011 of terror ties going back to their time in Iraq. Because of the excellent investigative work of FBI and the latent print IED database, these two Iraqi refugees are in Federal prison in Kentucky for insurgent attacks and setting roadside bombs in Iraq between 2003 and 2006. While this case is a success, the example of a refugee using their presence in the United States to commit terrorist acts or hide from prosecution is the rare exception. This case resulted in the necessary strengthening of the refugee vetting and admissions process. Over the last 30 years the United States has successfully resettled 3 million refugees.

Perhaps the most useful biometric data for this purpose, however, is in the hands of our Gulf Arab partners. A commitment by the United States to admit Syrian refugees demands three contributions from our Gulf Arab partners. First, they should increase the level of their financial commitments for humanitarian aid and refugee resettlement. Second, they must agree to take in substantial numbers of Syrian refugees themselves. Third, and most important to our security concerns, they must permit the United States to vet Syrian refugees applying to enter the country against their national biometric databases.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Jordan all have extensive biometric databases capturing biometric data upon entry. The Saudi biometric database is especially comprehensive not only because of their aggressive counterterrorism campaign over more than a decade but because it also includes all those who enter Saudi Arabia for the hajj and umrah pilgrimages. Securing the assistance of Mabahith, the Saudi internal security and counterterrorism force, is crucial. Mabahith is a capable and competent regional partner that has been especially important in thwarting threats from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen.

The UAE biometric databases are also crucial in counterterrorism screening because Dubai in particular is a regional transit hub. But Saudi Arabia and UAE are not the only Gulf Arab partners who can provide assistance and support, the same should be asked of: Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey as well as our partners in Europe. And while the Gulf Arab countries can and should provide additional financial assistance to alleviate the suffering of Syrian refugees they must commit to take in Syrian refugees themselves. Not only is such humanitarian assistance consistent with the basic tenets of Islam, but because they are all Arab speaking countries the resettled Syrian refugees can more quickly and comfortably settle and assimilate because of their common language.

The sad truth is that the Syrian refugee crisis is not new. The world stood silent while the rising tide of those desperately fleeing the conflict overwhelmed and destabilized our regional partners in Lebanon and Jordan. It was not until the wave of refugees landed on the shores of Europe that the rest of the world took notice. That we are ashamedly late however does not excuse further inaction. And while there is most assuredly some risk that terrorists might attempt to take advantage of the U.S. admission of Syrian refugees by trying to hide among them I believe the risk is a manageable one and worth it to mitigate the long term risk of fostering the next generation of terrorist recruits.

We should remember that unlike al Qaeda, whose priority has been attacks inside and against the United States and its interests around the world, the Islamic State has sought to attract and encourage foreign fighters to travel to and defend their self-proclaimed “Caliphate” in Iraq and Syria. And we know from the administration’s public statements the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria continues unabated. While it is fair to assume the Islamic State and terrorist groups will attack the United States wherever and whenever they see the opportunity we can successfully mitigate the risk of their using the admission of Syrian refugees by taking the steps outlined above.

Furthermore, we must not overlook the potential value of the observations and insights that Syrian refugees can provide. Because of the ongoing civil war and deteriorating security environment, the United States closed its Embassy in Damascus in February, 2012, and maintains no official presence in Syria. Consequently, America’s access to and understanding about the Assad regime, terrorist groups, foreign intervention, and conditions on the ground is severely limited. Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict can in fact be a crucial source of the important information we have otherwise found difficult to obtain.

The Syrian refugee crisis is not one of America’s making. Responsibility lays squarely on the shoulders of the murderous Assad regime, his Russian and Iranian military partners, weapons suppliers and political supporters as well as terrorist groups like the Islamic State who have joined the conflict. However, we had and lost the opportunity early on to stop the humanitarian catastrophe that has followed. If the administration had acted along with America’s Gulf Arab partners as President Obama suggested when he spoke in the Rose Garden of a “red line” in Syria we might have quelled the violence and avoided what has tragically become the 21st century’s first genocide.

There are no easy answers in Syria, but it’s time to stop acting as if the problems there are too hard or too complicated. While we cannot right the wrong of the current policy failure, it is still possible to can act now to both alleviate the consequent suffering and mitigate the potential future national security threat by vetting and admitting legitimate Syrian refugees.


Frances Fragos Townsend was the homeland security and counterterrorism advisor to President George W. Bush from 2003 to 2008. Prior to that, she served for many years as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice.

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