The war in Syria continues to grip the region, the refugee bulge shows no sign of retreat, and migrants are showing up on Europe’s doorstep in droves; yet, the West continues to wrestle with its immigration policies. Moral and humanitarian arguments have been dominated by security concerns and the threat of Syrian refugee influxes—a potential pipeline for terrorists—has triggered much of the equivocation in Washington and Europe on whether to welcome in more migrants.
The protracted Syrian conflict has caused one of the largest displacements of persons in recent history, forcing nearly 12 million Syrians to flee their homes. Of these, at least 7.6 million have been displaced within Syria and more than 4 million have sought refuge in neighboring countries Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt. So far, these countries have assumed 95 percent of the refugee burden and are quickly reaching their limits. With Gulf countries reluctant to provide anything other than financial assistance, Europe is the best bet for millions of displaced refugees with relatively easy channels through Greece and Turkey. More and more Syrians are opting to make the precarious and even deadly journey to Europe, where they are met with a host of anti-immigration challenges.
Inflamed by a photo of a drowned Syrian boy that went viral on social media, and the story of his family’s harrowing trip to Europe, both the United States and Europe have been criticized by human rights organizations for their unwillingness to amend their immigration policies and absorb more Syrian refugees. Though pledging the largest amount of humanitarian aid to Syria, critics complain that the United States has resettled just 1,500 Syrian refugees since the start of the war in 2011 and promises to accept a negligible 10,000 more next year.
In the EU, 82 percent of the Syrian resettlement cases are shouldered by Germany, which has pledged to receive some 30,000 Syrian refugees, followed by Sweden, which has accepted 1,200 cases. The United Kingdom and France combined have accepted 2,000 resettlement cases as well as 8,000 asylum seekers. These collectively low numbers have drawn fire from a number of human rights organizations, who have called the lack of Western response “unjust.” In the United States, 14 Senate Democrats sent a letter to President Obama in May urging the administration to allow in at least 65,000 Syrian refugees citing a “moral, legal, and national security imperative.” A letter was also put out by a large number of resettlement organizations last month urging the President to accept 100,000 more Syrian refugees in 2016.
In the West, however, these growing humanitarian concerns are coupled with the fear that a massive influx of migrant refugees will pose a grave security threat at home. An ISIS operative reportedly revealed that the group has been able to smuggle 4,000 jihadists among Syrian refugees traveling to Western countries.
The U.S. intelligence community also expressed concern over the Islamic State’s ability to co-opt the refugee crisis for its own gains. According to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, “We don’t obviously put it past the likes of ISIL to infiltrate operatives among these refugees.” Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security Michael McCaul (R-TX) echoed these concerns stating, “While we have a proud history of welcoming refugees, the Syrian conflict is a unique case requiring heightened vigilance and scrutiny. It represents the single largest convergence of Islamist terrorists in history.” He added that security officials did not yet have the information necessary to effectively vet large amounts of refugees. Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Michael Steinbach corroborated this point citing a “lack of information” in Syria.
A recent report by the House Committee on Homeland Security’s bipartisan task force on Combating Terrorist and Foreign Fighter Travel further found that international efforts to secure borders and stem the flow of foreign fighters have been woefully ineffective. The report stated that the United States “lacks a national strategy for combating terrorist travel and has not produced one in nearly a decade.” It added, “Gaping security weaknesses overseas—especially in Europe—are putting the U.S. homeland in danger by making it easier for aspiring foreign fighters to migrate to terrorist hotspots and for jihadists to return to the West.”
Faced with these security and counter-terrorism concerns, the Obama administration is challenged to meet the demands of the massive influx of Syrian refugees while securing borders at home. The United States’ current selection and vetting process of Syrian migrants is a multi-layered and thorough approach, which requires time, money, and personnel. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is responsible for selecting refugees deemed eligible for resettlement and U.S. consular and Department of Homeland Security asylum officers then vet applicants overseas before allowing them into the United States. State Department officials have explicitly stated that refugees are subject to more screening and security vetting than any other category of persons traveling to the United States.
A faster vetting process would require more resources and, according to Migration Policy Institute Senior Fellow Doris Meissner, “In order for us to be able to make a really robust, large-numbers response, it would take some—not changes in those procedures—but timeliness in those procedures that we haven’t put into place.”
The United States and the West, however, must work to strike the balance between humanitarian and security concerns, as a mismanaged refugee crisis could have an equally damaging impact. The Syrian refugee crisis is destabilizing the political and social fabric of countries in the region—fertile breeding ground for Islamic State and other extremist rhetoric—and creating a newly impoverished population with close to 80 percent of Syrians now destitute. Such conditions give rise to radicalization within already vulnerable populations—the unfettered war in Syria, for example, is one of the biggest drivers of jihadist recruits—and will pose an even greater security threat to the United States.
The Bipartisan Policy Center’s upcoming event on October 19 will 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 policy response.