On September 10, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest announced that the United States would accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the following 12 months. The new policy was greeted in Europe and the Middle East as a small but welcome step in addressing the worst humanitarian disaster in a generation, in which more than 4 million people have fled the country in less than five years. Since the announcement, however, the United States has resettled only 841 Syrians on its soil. If the current rate continues, it will take four years to reach Obama’s relatively modest goal.
It’s common for resettlement numbers to start low and increase by the end of the fiscal year. Still, the difficulty the administration will have in admitting a mere 10,000 Syrians in a single year underscores the deep political challenges facing the Obama administration in responding to the ongoing Syrian civil war. In the months since the announcement, high-profile terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have stoked anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, and the already onerous refugee resettlement application process has become even more stringent for Syrians. Despite this, the State Department says it still plans to meet its goal.
“We remain steadfastly committed to the President’s plan to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States in FY [fiscal year] 2016,” said Lawrence Bartlett, director of the State Department’s Office of Refugee Admissions, in a statement to The Nation. “We have met our admissions goals for each of the last three years, and we are on target to meet the goal of admitting 10,000 refugees from Syria and 85,000 refugees from all over the world, by the end of this fiscal year.” (The State Department didn’t set specific goals for Syrian refugees until this year, and only 1,682 were admitted in FY 2015.)
Bartlett added that to meet the new goal, “from February through April, additional staff will be posted to Jordan, where they will conduct and support interviews of 10,000 UNHCR-referred refugee applicants,” referring to the UN’s refugee agency. In addition to the new efforts in Jordan, Barlett said the United States “will restart Department of Homeland Security refugee resettlement interviews in Beirut, Lebanon on February 18, 2016.” The vast majority of Syrian refugees are in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon.
Still, it’s unlikely that any of the refugees who begin the screening process this month would be able to travel to the United States by October, the end of the fiscal year. The UN’s refugee agency “had already referred nearly twice the 10,000 target before the beginning of the fiscal year and many of these refugees have been in the pipeline for some time,” said Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program. The challenge is getting refugees through this pipeline, a byzantine process that takes Syrians refuges, on average, 18 to 24 months, and often longer.
All refugees hoping to relocate to the United States face a strict background-check process, and Syrians are subject to an additional round of scrutiny. Sometimes the long waits aren’t due to any specific security concern but bureaucratic complications. In addition to the DHS, federal agencies, including the State Department, FBI, National Counterterrorism Center, and the Defense Department, each run background checks, including medical examinations, on all refugee applicants. “There are many agencies that all have to concur on an individual’s clearance for travel [to this country], and those different security checks have different validity periods,” said Betsy Fisher, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project. “So what we’ll see is a vicious cycle where to get everyone on the same file with all of their clearances lined up can take a long time.” Fisher says she hears from the government that the numbers will increase in the coming months, and hopes the security checks will be streamlined without sacrificing any accuracy.