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Why the US isn't taking more Syrian refugees

The US is supposed to be a haven for people fleeing persecution: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses," and all that. So as Europe's refugee crisis has grabbed the world's attention, more and more people have started to ask the US government: Why isn't the US doing more to help Syrian refugees?

The federal government's response has indeed done something, announcing Thursday it will take in "at least" 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next fiscal year. That's many more than the 1,500 it's taken in so far. But compared with the 800,000 refugees Germany has promised to take in for asylum — not to mention the 4 million Syrians who've fled their country and are living as refugees around the world — it doesn't look like much:


So why hasn't the US taken more?

The political battle lines over this are telling. Ten thousand Syrian refugees is a lot fewer than many congressional Democrats were hoping for; they'd been calling for the US to keep up its reputation as a world leader in resettling refugees by taking in 65,000 Syrians. At the same time, it's too many for some Republicans, such as Rep. Peter King, who have expressed fear that Syrian refugees will come into the country to commit acts of terrorism.

One problem for the US is that its refugee system simply isn't built for humanitarian emergencies; it is slow in ways that make it hard for the US to respond to crises like what is unfolding currently in Europe and the Middle East.

The Syrian refugee crisis has exposed the limitations of what US refugee policy is designed to do, and particularly its failures to take in refugees from the Middle East in the age of the war on terror. Even if the US could move quickly, it's not clear that it would be willing to.

The simplest answer for why the US hasn't done more: It's not obligated to do anything

International refugee law doesn't tell countries what they ought to do. It tells them what they're not allowed to do: a country can't send a refugee back to somewhere where his or her life will be in danger.

In practice, that means that refugees, instead of waiting around at some embassy to get all their paperwork together to go to another country, will arrive at that country first and apply for protection there. As long as the refugee can prove she is facing persecution at home, the country she's arrived in is supposed to take her in.

That makes physical proximity important for where refugees tend to go. It's what's been happening in Europe for the past few years: Tens of thousands of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries have made the trip to Greece, Italy, or Hungary to apply for asylum within the European Union.

The trip is dangerous — especially for those who cross the Mediterranean Sea — but it's possible. But other developed countries such as the US or Australia are simply not reachable from the Middle East, or from anyplace else in the Eastern Hemisphere, in any practical way.

From a legal standpoint, the US doesn't have to do anything at all beyond accepting Syrian refugees who successfully make it to the US, but that's only a few hundred a year. Any refugees it accepts from camps abroad are just a mitzvah: a thing that a virtuous person ought to do. With so little practical pressure on the US, especially relative to Europe, it clearly just feels less compelled to act, and certainly less compelled to act swiftly.

The pool of Syrian refugees approvable for resettlement is so far just a small fraction

Part of the issue here is that the UN refugee agency, which is understandably in crisis mode, has not been able to focus much on resettlement.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees articulates three different permanent solutions to a refugee's plight. They can return to their home country when it once more becomes safe. They can integrate into whatever country they've fled to. Or they can be taken in by a third country and resettled there permanently.

Practically speaking, the UNHCR can only offer most refugees one of those first two options. Resettlement is resource- and time-intensive, and when you have 4 million Syrian refugees, it's more practical to focus on ways you can help the majority of them either wait out the conflict (especially when many refugees hope to return to their homes and families anyway) or integrate into their local host country.

But that means the UNHCR, which is stretched perilously thin, has fewer resources to put into identifying refugees for resettlement into third countries such as the United States. The UNHCR only considers less than 1 percent of all global refugees as candidates for resettlement; in 2014, barely 100,000 refugees were resettled by UNHCR around the world.

yarmouk refugee camp syria

Yarmouk refugee camp for Palestinians, in Damascus, in 2014. (United Nation Relief and Works Agency/Getty Images)

So far, UNHCR has only referred about 16,000 Syrian refugees to the US for possible resettlement.

Still, the US has only taken a small fraction of these, about one in 10. So while UNHCR and its stretched-thin resources might very well become a bottleneck if the US decided to take tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, as encouraged by humanitarian groups and some Democrats, at this point the biggest bottleneck is the US itself.

The bottlenecks in the US refugee system

The US sets an annual quota for global refugees, as well as regional quotas. In 2015, the US anticipated taking only 33,000 refugees from the Middle East and North Africa — and that included a deliberate effort to take thousands of refugees from Iraq.

The US can exceed a regional quota, but it can't turn on a dime. Resettling refugees is a lengthy process, one that usually takes multiple years. It starts with deploying processing personnel and resources on the ground to find and vet refugees for resettlement, and continues with the long time it takes to process an individual resettlement application: usually 18 months to two years.

There's very little flexibility to respond to emergencies like the one in Syria, even when those emergencies are visible years in advance. And the US is still considerably, woefully behind on its commitments to settle Iraqi refugees from the region.

Because the US wasn't planning to take large numbers of Syrian refugees, it hasn't had enough of those resources on the ground in, for example, the Turkish and Lebanese camps where many Syrians are located. So it will take the US quite some time to resettle the 10,000 Syrians it's just committed to taking, and it would require even more time to take more.

Even still, that raises the question of why the US has waited as long as it has to task these resources on finding Syrian refugees to resettle, years after the war began, and after the US made previous commitments to take more Syrian refugees.

Fear of accidentally admitting a "terrorist" is hamstringing US operations in Syria

When the US feels it really needs to evacuate refugees first and process them later, it can do it: In 1999, it turned Fort Dix into a welcome center for 20,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.

Even when the US processes refugees abroad but still makes them a priority — as it's currently doing for Congolese and Myanmar refugees — it tends to let in many more refugees than the 1,500 Syrians it's let in over the past two years, though Syrians have supposedly been a priority.

The difference isn't just that Syrian refugees are Middle Eastern and typically Muslim. But it's certainly relevant. In the Syrian civil war, tangled allegiances and fractured rebellions have blurred the lines between civilian and combatant, and between jihadist and non-jihadist rebel. It is just difficult to exist in Syria without interacting to some extent with a group that the US might consider linked to terrorism, and that is almost always a deal-breaker for resettlement.

homs bombed out syria

The Syrian civil war has just been ugly. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

No immigrant is legally allowed to come to the US if she's ever been affiliated with a terrorist group, or if she's provided "material support" to one. For refugees, that ban extends to the spouses and children of anyone who's been affiliated with or materially supported a terrorist group. And it's one of the things investigators most consider when they conduct a security check on a refugee — and a big reason why it takes 18 to 24 months to process a resettlement application.

Syrian refugees have to prove a negative: that they have never had any involvement with any group the US would consider terrorists. For men who have served with one rebel group or another during the war, that can often be impossible; if a man left a rebel group when it affiliated with al-Qaeda, he has no way to prove that he wasn't an al-Qaeda affiliate himself. Families that have had no involvement with any groups, meanwhile, face the difficult task of proving the absence of any involvement. And this is compounded by the administrative problems in processing Syrian refugees: Different databases may transliterate Arabic names differently, making them hard to cross-check; some names may sound alike and lead to confusion of identity.

The US doesn't need to tell any refugee why his or her application to settle in the US has been rejected, and there's very little information publicly available about how many refugees have been rejected because the US is concerned about terrorist ties. But it's been a concern of advocates and some lawmakers for a while.

The US is not great when it comes to Middle Eastern refugee resettlement

The US has already proven extremely reticent when it comes to taking refugees from Middle Eastern conflict zones where terrorist groups are present. In Iraq, after the US withdrew its official combat presence, it allocated 20,000 special immigrant visas meant for the families of Iraqis who had aided the US. But it actually gave out only a fraction — just 392 in 2011, for example, and 6,000 in 2013 after heavy lobbying from advocates and a domestic outcry.

This reticence, which you see playing out in the relatively small Syrian program as well, is almost certainly motivated by a fear of terrorism, as well as a fear of the political repercussions should an attack occur. It is helped along by some Republican members of Congress who oppose resettlement on those grounds. Rep. Pete King (R-NY) said of Obama's announcement that the US would take 10,000 Syrian refugees, "I oppose this decision. We do not want another Boston Marathon bombing."

In early 2014, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) held a hearing to call attention to the restrictions on refugees who'd provided "material support" for terrorist groups in Syria — saying that someone who gave a rebel "a sandwich or a cigarette" could be barred from the US.

In response, the government created an exception: People who provided "insignificant" material support could now get admitted as refugees, if the official processing them thought they deserved a pass. But the government took until May 2015 to define "insignificant" support, putting a hold on any applications that might have fit in that category for 15 months. A year-plus is short in policy time, but for the refugee families struggling to get by in overcrowded refugee camps, it is an eternity.

It's not clear how big a difference the reform has made. The US has certainly been admitting more Syrian refugees: 197 per month from June through August, compared with 97 per month from last October through April. But to resettle 10,000 Syrians in fiscal year 2016, the US would have to approve four times as many Syrian refugees a month as it's approving this summer. To settle 65,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016, as humanitarian groups urge, it would have to move 20 times as fast.

It's hard to imagine the US resettlement system, which isn't built for emergencies, being able to step up its refugee operations in any country that quickly. But it's even harder to imagine it speeding up its security screenings of refugee men, women, and children who are fleeing a war as awful as Syria's.

The Obama administration could easily raise its refugee cap for next year and beyond. But if it's actually going to succeed at bringing more Syrian refugees into the US, it's going to have to figure out what's greater: the security and political risk that the "wrong" refugee poses, even if it is just one or two out of tens of thousands, or the humanitarian urgency of helping the "right" refugees now.