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What's Behind the West's Slow Response to the Refugee Crisis?

The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) on October 19 hosted a discussion on the Syrian refugee crisis and how to balance humanitarian and security concerns. Experts from the State Department, UNHCR, The George Washington University, The German Marshall Fund, and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services exchanged views and potential solutions.

The civil war in Syria has caused one of the largest displacements of persons in recent history, creating humanitarian, political, and security challenges that the United States and its allies now confront. Hundreds of thousands more refugees are making their way to European countries in search of asylum and approximately 1,500 Syrians have received asylum in the United States.

Meanwhile, as U.S. and European Union leaders work to address this flow of refugees, the Islamic State (ISIS) has boasted of disguising thousands of terrorists as refugees in order to infiltrate Western countries, and a recently released report by the House Committee on Homeland Security’s bipartisan task force found that international efforts to secure borders and stem the flow of foreign fighters have been woefully ineffective.

In light of this reality, BPC held a forum to discuss the humanitarian and security dimensions of the refugee crisis and how the two can be balanced and reconciled to create a coherent U.S. and global response.


Below are some important takeaways from the discussion:

The magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis is great

According to Larry Yungk, senior resettlement officer at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), overall displacement is at an all-time high since World War II, with 60 million people displaced worldwide. Of those, 4.1 million are Syrian refugees seeking asylum or resettlement due to the civil war and 7.6 million are Syrians who are internally displaced in the country. The refugee crisis is metastasizing faster than ever and Europe is bearing the brunt of an unprecedented emergency crisis.

There is a humanitarian divide among Western countries

30 countries worldwide, including many in the West, have lent resettlement support, with some countries seeing arrivals of up to 6,000 people per day and receiving more than 500,000 asylum applications. European countries offering the most resettlements are Germany, Sweden, Norway and, most recently, the United Kingdom. These countries have also begun to establish an inter-European relocation plan.

Other European countries, however, have opted to close their borders and attempt to block the flow of migrants. Panelists cited many reasons for this, including a lack of political will and, in some cases, concerns over allowing in a large number of Muslim immigrants. As a whole, Europe continues to grapple with the integration and inclusion of large migrant populations.

Security concerns over Syrian refugee influxes

According to Lorenzo Vidino, director of the Program on Extremism at The George Washington University, refugee flows should not be viewed purely through a security lens. He added that, based on empirical evidence, there is not a strong link between threats to security and refugee flows. For example, of those arrested for known links to ISIS and terrorism in the United States, 40 percent of them are converts who are American citizens. Europe has similar statistics.

So far, in both the United States and Europe, there has been little evidence of terrorist attacks perpetrated by incoming refugees. Vidino said that the biggest threats to the homeland are in fact home-grown radicalization and lone-wolf terrorist attacks. Attacks within our own borders pose a much greater threat than a potentially imported one, he argues.

Adnan Kifayat, former deputy special representative to Muslim communities at the State Department, added that ISIS propaganda—which claims to have embedded fighters in the refugee flows—should not be automatically assumed to be true but those claims do require heightened scrutiny and should be vetted. Turning away Syrian refugees will only fuel the ISIS narrative that Western countries are averse to and antagonistic toward Muslims.

The United States and Europe are also missing a key counter-messaging opportunity: the refugee and humanitarian crisis in the region can be used as a way of countering claims that Muslims would benefit from living in ISIS-controlled territory when, in reality, they are leaving in droves.

Ramping up the U.S. resettlement program is complicated and expensive 

Humanitarian organizations have urged the United States to resettle at least 100,000 Syrian refugees but doing so would require a number of changes on a domestic and international level. Currently, for most refugees and asylum seekers, the UNHCR is the first stop towards resettlement. UNHCR works with governments and experts in the field, and utilizes biometrics (e.g., finger printing, iris scans, digital photographs, and bio data) to conduct initial screenings of refugees and establish consistency of identity.

The State Department accepts most refugee referrals from UNHCR. Kelly Gauger, deputy director of refugee admissions at the State Department, said the resettlement process can take 18 to 24 months because the United States accepts referrals from a host of countries and nationalities at any given time. On average, she said, the United States has a quarter of a million people from all over the world moving through the system. Syrian refugees, particularly, are subject to the highest level of security checks.

In discussing how to ramp-up U.S. resettlement efforts for Syrian refugees, Gauger underscored two important constraints often overlooked by critics: (1) the UNHCR does not have the capacity to give over 100,000 referrals for Syrian refugees to the United States. This year, for example, the State Department received 22,000 referrals from UNHCR and is on track to admit 10,000 of them in 2016; and (2) the State Department does not have the budget at current levels to fund a massive resettlement program. In 2015, for example, the U.S. government spent approximately $400 million admitting 70,000 refugees from around the world. The government would need significantly more money to fund a 100,000-person resettlement program largely geared toward Syrians.

Looking Forward

It is clear that streamlining and expediting the refugee resettlement process in the United States would require both an international and domestic-level effort including: (1) greater capacity, resources, and money to boost the UNHCR’s referral process; and (2) more political will and funding on the part of the U.S. government to ramp-up the resettlement process. The administration, which is required to consult with Congress on adjusting the U.S. resettlement program, should be more vociferous about these growing needs and concerns.

Relevant agencies must continue to refine their resettlement processes and make improvements to security checks that will shorten processing times. Brittany Nystrom, advocacy director at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, underscored that it is irresponsible and inhumane to allow vulnerable populations to languish for up to 24 months. The United States must also seek additional referral programs outside of UNHCR and work more closely with European Union partners to share refugee lists and critical intelligence.

In the long run, it is in the United States’ best interest to cultivate a low-risk, well-managed resettlement program that can anticipate and better respond to unprecedented mass migration events.

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