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Stretching Facts on Syrian Refugees

Two Republican presidential candidates who oppose President Obama’s plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees stretched the facts to support their policy position:

  • Ben Carson said that the majority of Syrian refugees are “young males.” But the United Nations’ figures show women outnumber men, and children 11 years old and younger, male and female, account for 38.5 percent of all refugees.
  • Scott Walker said that “many” of the refugees who have been admitted to the United States this fiscal year came from Syria. Actually, Syrians represent just 2.3 percent of the 57,350 total global refugees accepted by the U.S. as of Aug. 31.

‘Majority’ of Syrian Refugees Are ‘Young Males’?

Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, made the claim during an interview on CNN’s “The Lead” with John Berman. Carson said he didn’t think the United States should be willing to take in more Syrian refugees, arguing that the risk of some refugees actually being terrorists was too great.

Carson, Sept. 14: I believe we should encourage the various countries in that region, you know, Turkey, the Arabian Peninsula, to take those refugees in. And we should be willing to perhaps help them financially and with some expertise. But the fact of the matter is, we don’t know who those people are. And the majority of them are young males. And they could easily be people who are being infiltrated by terrorists and recognize that once you bring them in, then you have got to bring other members of the family in.

So you’re multiplying that number substantially. We need — this is not something that we can necessarily afford to do in terms of exposing our population to that kind of risk right now.

Carson is entitled to his opinion about whether or not the United States should allow more Syrian refugees to enter the country, and we take no position on that. But his comment that “the majority of them are young males” is contradicted by the best data available on the Syrian refugees’ demographics.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — which refers refugees for resettlement in other countries — says there are more than 4 million registered Syrian refugees. Its figures on the demographic makeup of refugees is based on available data on the 2.1 million who were registered by the UNHCR in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. (Another 1.9 million Syrian refugees were registered by the Government of Turkey, and more than 24,000 were registered in North Africa.)

UNHCR’s data show that 50.5 percent of refugees are women. Females age 18 to 59 make up 23.9 percent of the refugees, while males in that age group make up 21.8 percent.

Even younger males — age 12 to 17 — represent 6.5 percent of refugees, while females that age are 6.1 percent. The majority of refugees — 51.1 percent — are under age 17, including 38.5 percent who are younger than 12 years old. These numbers were as of Sept. 6.

We have seen a different set of UNHCR numbers cited on a few conservative websites — figures for refugees and migrants who have tried to enter Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea. There have been more than 400,000 such “sea arrivals” in 2015, and 51 percent are Syrian. The rest have come mainly from nine other countries. Most of these refugees and migrants have been men — 72 percent — but these are not figures on Syrian refugees or even solely the 200,000-some Syrians who have been willing to take some type of boat to reach Europe by sea.

In the CNN interview, Carson also implied that the U.S. would take in much higher numbers of Syrian refugees than the 10,000 the Obama administration has said the country would accept in fiscal 2016. Carson said, “I will tell you that if I was ISIS, I were the global jihadist and I knew the United States was about to take in 10,000 or 65,000 or 100,000 people from my region, I would infiltrate them with my people.”

As we wrote in an Ask FactCheck on this topic, a humanitarian aid group and a group of Democratic senators have argued that the U.S. should accept 65,000 Syrians in 2016 — which is half of the number the United Nations had identified for resettlement worldwide by the end of that year. But so far, the Obama administration hasn’t committed to anything close to that.

On Sept. 10, the White House announced it would accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal 2016, which begins Oct. 1. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it would take 12 to 18 months to complete the resettlement process, which includes “security precautions,” so not all of them will be in the U.S. before the next fiscal year ends Sept. 30, 2016.

One last thing: Carson also exaggerates when he says that once the U.S. accepts 10,000 Syrian refugees “then you have got to bring other members of the family in. So you’re multiplying that number substantially.”

The U.S. refugee program allows certain family members of refugees to apply for refugee status, but that “does not guarantee acceptance,” as the State Department explains on its website. Among other things, the U.S. sets priorities on the type of refugees it will accept, and family reunification is the third of three priorities. As the Congressional Research Services says in a Feb. 18 report, the top priority is given to “persons facing compelling security concerns,” not family members.

As for Carson’s claim that Syrian family members would increase the overall number of Syrian refugees “substantially,” we cannot say whether that would happen. But we note that the president each year places a limit on the number of all refugees, including family members, by region.

U.S. Has Accepted ‘Many’ Syrian Refugees?

Walker made his remarks about Syrian refugees on CNN’s “State of the Union,” where anchor Jake Tapper noted Obama’s plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees and asked Walker why he opposes it.

Walker, Sept. 13: We’re already a leader in this regard. A lot of people know — don’t know and very few have covered the fact that, within the past year, America has taken and settled, permanently settled, some 70,000 refugees, many of which are from Syria.

As of Aug. 31, the U.S. had accepted 1,293 Syrian refugees in fiscal 2015, which ends Sept. 30, according to figures from the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center. That’s 2.3 percent of the 57,350 total global refugees that the U.S. has accepted this fiscal year.

Obama had authorized the State Department for fiscal year 2015 to accept as many as 70,000 refugees from around the world, including 33,000 from Near East/South Asia, which includes Syria. Since 2011, when the Syrian civil war began, the U.S. has accepted nearly 1,500 Syrian refugees. That total could rise to 1,800 by the end of September, a State Department spokesman told us.

Although an increase of an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees would be substantial, it’s less than what some other countries have committed to accept or have already accepted.

Since 2013, Germany has committed to accepting 35,000 Syrian refugees, and Canada has committed to 11,300, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (The UN agency has submitted 18,336 Syrian refugees to the U.S. for its consideration, but as we mentioned that’s more than the U.S. has said that it would accept.)

In addition, “many more refugees have moved spontaneously [outside the country to other nations] and have been granted asylum or are in the process of having their claims assessed,” Ariane Rummery of the UNHCR told us in an email.

Rummery provided us with data that showed Germany has received nearly 40,000 new asylum applications from Syrians in the first seven months of 2015, and Hungary has received nearly 11,000 in the first six months. The U.S. has received just 545 in the first seven months of 2015, the data show.

— Lori Robertson and D’Angelo Gore, with Eugene Kiely