A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Resettling Syrian Refugees


Q: Are 65,000 Syrian refugees being relocated to the U.S.?
A: No. The Obama administration says 1,000 to 2,000 Syrians will likely be resettled in the United States by the end of September, and at least 10,000 more in 2016.

FULL QUESTION

I was emailed today that the Obama administration is authorizing the move of 65,000 refugees from Syria to the United States? Please help me!

FULL ANSWER

Nearly 4 million Syrians have fled their home country because of a more than four-year civil war that has resulted in more than 220,000 deaths.

Almost all of the refugees have settled in the neighboring nations of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. The U.S. has accepted fewer than 900 Syrians as refugees since 2011.

Some say the U.S. should dramatically increase the number of refugees it accepts to at least 65,000, but so far the Obama administration has made a much smaller commitment.

In February, Jen Psaki, then a State Department spokeswoman, said: “We’re likely to admit 1,000 to 2,000 Syrian refugees for permanent resettlement in fiscal year 2015 and a somewhat higher number, though still in the low thousands, in fiscal year 2016.”

Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard said the same thing in April.

Update, Sept. 10: In a press briefing, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that President Obama will direct his administration to make preparations to accept at least 10,000 refugees from Syria in fiscal year 2016. We have changed the short answer to reflect his statement. As of Aug. 31, the U.S. had accepted 1,293 Syrian refugees in fiscal 2015, which ends Sept. 30, according to State Department figures.

Resettling Syrians

In December, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that Western nations meeting in Geneva, including the U.S., had pledged to accept 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2015. The UNHCR had called for 130,000 Syrians to be resettled by the end of 2016.

The International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian aid group that has been helping displaced Syrians, has argued for the U.S. to accept at least 65,000.

“It is well past time for the United States and other Western countries to commit to a dramatic boost in the resettlement of Syrian refugees,” wrote David Miliband, the IRC president and chief executive, in a Washington Post op-ed in March.

“By historical standards, the United States should be committing to take around 65,000 — or 50 percent — of those identified by the United Nations for resettlement by the end of 2016.”

Sen. Dick Durbin and 13 other Senate Democrats want the U.S. to do the same.

In a May 21 letter to President Obama, the senators urged the administration to “accept at least 50 percent of Syrian refugees whom UNHCR is seeking to resettle, consistent with our nation’s traditional practice under both Republican and Democratic Presidents.”

The U.S. has received 12,000 resettlement cases for consideration, the senators wrote.

According to the Congressional Research Service, “The United States aims to consider for resettlement at least half of the refugees referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for resettlement worldwide each year, depending on the availability of funding.” For example, in 2013, the UNHCR referred 93,200 refugees for resettlement worldwide, and the U.S. took in 66,200 refugees during that year, according to that organization’s most recent annual global trends report.

But 65,000 Syrians, which some are pushing for, would be almost as many as the 70,000 global refugees that Obama authorized the U.S. to admit in fiscal year 2015. In order to accommodate that many Syrians, the U.S. would have to significantly increase its refugee admissions caps or reduce the number of admissions from other regions of the world.

FY15_refugee_capsThe 70,000 reserved spots for FY 2015 include 68,000 divided by regions, and an unallocated reserve of 2,000 to be added to those areas as needed. Since FY 2004, there have been eight years in which the unallocated reserve was tapped to adjust the ceilings and allow more refugees from a particular region, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The presidential determination for FY 2015 also authorizes the secretary of state to “transfer unused admissions allocated to a particular region to one or more other regions, if there is a need for greater admissions for the region or regions to which the admissions are being transferred.” That is standard language, which was included, for example, in the presidential determinations issued by President Bush in fiscal years 2007 and 2008.

The determination for fiscal 2016 will likely be made in October.

Of the 852 Syrians admitted to the U.S. since the start of 2011, 651 came in fiscal 2015, according to figures from the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center. Most of the refugees for fiscal 2015 from the Near East/South Asia region came from Iraq, Iran and Bhutan.

As of April 30, California, Illinois and Texas have had the most Syrians resettled in their states this fiscal cycle, with 79, 78 and 77 admissions, respectively.

 Security Concerns

The plan to aid even a few thousand Syrians, many of whom may be Muslim, has its critics.

Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, has called it a “serious mistake” to bring Syrians to the U.S.

In January, McCaul, along with Reps. Peter King and Candice Miller, both chairpersons of homeland security subcommittees, wrote a letter to National Security Advisor Susan Rice voicing their concerns about the potential security risks.

“The resettlement of such a high number of Syrian refugees raises serious national security concerns,” they wrote. “We are concerned about the possibility of groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) exploiting the refugee resettlement process to mask the deployment of operatives into the West.”

“We cannot allow the refugee process to become a backdoor for jihadists,” they added.

The Department of Homeland Security, which grants refugees admission to the U.S., will screen all refugee applicants. But Michael Steinbach, the FBI assistant director for counterterrorism, said that unreliable information from Syria could make that difficult.

“You have to have information to vet, so the concern in Syria is that we don’t have systems in places on the ground to collect the information to vet,” he said at a February House hearing. “Databases don’t hold the information on those individuals, and that’s the concern.”

Francis Taylor, the DHS under secretary for intelligence and analysis, who also testified at the hearing, said the admission process would involve “rigorous screening.”

“Any tasking we’re given from a departmental point of view with our intelligence community partners will be as thorough as we can make it,” he said.

 — D’Angelo Gore

Sources

U.S. Agency for International Development. Syria – Complex Emergency. Fact sheet. 31 Mar 2015.

U.S. Department of State. Daily Press Briefing. 13 Feb 2015.

U.S. Department of State. Refugee Admissions Report. 7 May 2015. Accessed 1 Jun 2015.

U.S. Plans To Lead in Resettling Syrian Refugees.” 9 Dec 2014.

Associated Press. “US to resettle more Syrian refugees in the near future.” 2 Apr 2015.

Miliband, David. “U.S. should boost resettlement of Syrian refugees.” Op-ed. Washington Post. 19 May 2015.

Office of U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin. “Senators Urge President to Allow More Syrian Refugees to Resettle in U.S.” Press release. 21 May 2015.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Global Trends Report 2013. 20 Jun 2014.

Bruno, Andorra. “Refugee Admissions and Resettlement Policy.” Congressional Research Service. 18 Feb 2015.

White House. Presidential Memorandum — FY 2015 Refugee Admissions. 30 Sep 2014.

Matishak, Martin. “Homeland chair: ‘Serious mistake’ to resettle Syrian refugees in US.” The Hill. 21 May 2015.

U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security. Letter to Susan Rice. 28 Jan 2015.

U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security. “Countering Violent Islamist Extremism: The Urgent Threat of Foreign Fighters and Homegrown Terror.” Hearing. 11 Feb 2015.