The United States has often been a global leader in resettlement, challenging other countries to meet their international obligations, contributing to global stability, and advancing human rights.
The U.S. government pledged to resettle “at least 10,000” Syrian refugees by September 30, 2016. In a crisis driving 4.7 million people to seek refuge outside of Syria in neighboring states and, increasingly, in Europe, this modest resettlement commitment must be expanded in years to come. The United States can, and should, do more. Ten thousand only represents two percent of the Syrian refugees in need of resettlement and less than 0.2 percent of the overall Syrian refugee population.
However, backlogs and delays in processing cases are hampering the administration’s ability to meet even 10,000. Five months into the fiscal year, less than ten percent of the pledged resettlement places have been filled.
In early March 2016, the Department of State announced that 114 Syrian refugees were resettled to the United States in the month of February. This was the lowest number of Syrian refugee arrivals in any month this fiscal year. In October 2015, 187 Syrian refugees were resettled, followed by 250, 237, and 167 resettled in November, December, and January, respectively. These small numbers raise concerns about the administration’s ability to meet the 10,000 goal in the months to come.
With over 90 percent of the goal yet to be attained, and just over half of the fiscal year remaining, an average of 1,292 resettlement spaces need to be filled each month for the next seven months to keep on track. Historically, resettlement spaces tend to be filled toward the end of the fiscal year, so there is still time to meet the commitment. But given the current average of about 191 Syrian resettlement arrivals per month, this would take a dramatic upswing. If the current pace remains unchanged, only 2,292 spaces will be filled by year’s end.
Increasing resettlement numbers would not come at the expense of national security. In the foreword to Human Rights First’s recent report, Ambassador Ryan Crocker describes how resettlement actually advances U.S. national security by alleviating pressure on frontline refugee hosting states and helping to stabilize the region surrounding Syria.
As national security experts have repeatedly affirmed, Syrian refugees undergo an unrivaled vetting and security clearance process before they are admitted to the country. Syrian cases are subject to enhanced review even beyond other highly vetted refugee cases.
The Department of Homeland Security analyzes an extensive array of data prior to its decision on any given case. Data sources include the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the State Department, the Department of Defense (DoD), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), foreign intelligence partners, and Interpol. A trained DHS-USCIS officer conducts an in-person interview informed by this extensive intelligence apparatus for each refugee. Without any delays, this robust security clearance process typically takes 18 to 24 months to complete.
In order to reach the modest 10,000 person goal in the next seven months, the United States should address staffing gaps to reduce backlogs, bottlenecks, and delays in resettlement processing. As the global leader in refugee resettlement, the United States sets an example for others to follow. If the United States fails to meet even this minimal pledge, it will damage its historical, humanitarian, and national security interests.