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Refugee Process, Security Screening, and Challenges: A Primer

In the shadow of the recent Paris terrorist attacks, there are many voices calling for a pause of the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Balancing humanitarian and security interests is inherent in the U.S. refugee admissions process, which has been successfully resettling refugees from conflict zones for decades. It is important to understand the refugee process, security screenings, and facts about the actual inflow and challenges posed by the current crisis.

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U.S. Refugee Resettlement Process

  • Defining Refugee. A refugee is an individual forced to flee his or her country in order to escape imminent danger caused by war or natural disaster. Refugees must seek admission to the United States from abroad, and thus differ from applicants for asylum who are already present in the United States or attempting to obtain admission at a port of entry and seek protection. Most of the Syrians in Europe are actually correctly defined as asylum applicants, not refugees.
  • Screening. Refugees seeking admission to the United States undergo the most stringent security screening process for anyone entering the country. Before a refugee ever sets foot on U.S. soil, they undergo a lengthy and layered screening process consisting of several phases:
    • Referral: Displaced persons seeking resettlement are first vetted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which conducts in-depth interviews, home country reference checks, and collects biographic and biometric information (like fingerprints and iris scans). If they pass these checks, are deemed to meet the definition of a refugee under international conventions, are selected for oversees resettlement, and meet U.S. resettlement requirements, UNHCR refers them to the U.S. government.
    • Eligibility: A resettlement support center compiles all personal data and background information (the case file) for the U.S. refugee application process, which includes confirmation of identity and nationality and eligibility for admission to the United States as a refugee, which is determined by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a part of the Department of Homeland Security.
    • Security Checks: In addition to eligibility determinations, several security background checks are conducted by the U.S. government, including biographic and biometrics checks through the State Department’s Consular Lookout and Support System (or CLASS), and the higher-level Security Advisory Opinion and interagency security checks, which compare information against key security databases. Biographics and biometrics are also shared with the FBI and Department of Defense to check against their own databases. The full security screening process involves several agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, and the Departments of Homeland Security, State, and Defense.
    • Enhanced Security Review: Due to the circumstances in Syria, all Syrian refugees are going through an extra security screening step, the “Syria Enhanced Review.” These particular case files are shared with the Fraud Detection and National Security unit at USCIS, which carries out individualized research in classified and unclassified data sets, and provides their results to the specialists assigned to review the Syrian applications.
  • In-person interview. In addition to data checks and investigations, all applicants also undergo in-person interviews with USCIS officer. Based on the personal interview and the applicant’s case file, the USCIS officer decides if the person qualifies for refugee status—this is conditional while security steps above are finalized.
  • Medical Examination. If the application for resettlement is approved and submitted to for final processing, the refugee is required to go through a medical screening.
  • Sponsor Agency and Cultural Orientation. Refugees are then assigned to a Voluntary Agency, which connects them to a local partner organization that assists them upon arrival. Refugees are also offered cultural orientation before departing.
  • Final Security Clearance. Because the refugee application process can take several months, refugees are screened one more time before departure to examine any new information.
  • Arrival at Port of Entry. All the documents are again reviewed by a Customs and Border Protection officer at a port of entry after the refugee’s arrival. The officer also conducts additional security checks to make sure the refugee is the same individual who was screened and approved.
  • Process Length. The total time of processing of an individual application is about 18 months to two years. Most of the time taken up by security checks regarding possible involvement with terrorism.

Refugees by the Numbers

In FY 2015, the United States accepted 69,933 refugees. Around 1,682 of those were from Syria. To date, the U.S. has admitted nearly 2,000 Syrians in the past four years and plans to admit 10,000 in FY 2016. This consists of about 0.003% of the registered Syrian refugee total (now at 4,289,792 persons worldwide). Of those already accepted, nearly half are children, one quarter are adults over 60, and about 2 percent would be considered “single, male, and of combat age,” according to administration officials. The U.S. has asked UNHCR to prioritize refugees who are considered vulnerable—women with children, the elderly, people who have been tortured or who may require modern medical treatment they cannot easily get elsewhere.

Risk in the Refugee Process

While the U.S. refugee security screening process is extensive and has a long history of protecting the United States from threats, it is important to acknowledge the challenges that the specific situation in Syria poses. Administration intelligence and security officials have pointed out that the Syrian conflict zone makes vetting potential refugees more difficult because there is less access to Syrian government data and information from the ground to confirm or corroborate data from the U.S. clearance process or individual applicants. Like in all other security screening processes, the U.S. government can only check refugee data against whatever intelligence and information it has at its disposal. The difficulties in vetting Syrian refugees are indeed why the process takes so long for Syrians and why many are being rejected. The U.S. government will not approve applications when they cannot ensure identity or security. Some refugee advocates express concern that this means that qualifying refugees with a lack of information are being denied.

Nonetheless, the threat from the U.S. refugee process should not be overstated. Of the nearly 1 million refugees admitted since 2001, not one has committed an act of terrorism in the U.S., and only three have been convicted of planning terrorist attacks on targets abroad (though none were successful). Additionally, denying refugees, sending them back, or forcing them to remain in refugee camps presents additional risks to U.S. security interests, as they are more likely to be radicalized in camps, and turning them away feeds into ISIS strategy and anti-Western narrative.

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