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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Facts about the Syrian Refugees

The Paris bombings and other recent terrorist attacks have given rise to a political debate within the United States about the Obama administration’s plan to admit Syrian refugees. But the facts about refugees are being distorted in some instances.

Here are some claims about the refugees — and the facts:

  • Sen. Ted Cruz says it’s “astonishing” that only 3 percent of Syrian refugees admitted to the United States so far are Christian. He’s right, but the refugees are referred to the United States by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
  • Cruz also says 77 percent of the refugees “pouring into Europe right now” are young males. That’s inaccurate and misleading. There are more than 4.2 million refugees and only about 850,000 fled to Europe (62 percent of whom are men). A U.N. spokesman says those referred to the U.S. would be among those remaining in the Middle East, such as in Turkey and Jordan, and those refugees are largely women and children.
  • President Obama says the “overwhelming numbers” of Syrian refugees referred to the U.S. by the U.N. have been women and children. That’s true — 67 percent have been children under the age of 12 and women, according to State Department data.
  • Donald Trump suggested the government steers Syrian refugees to states with Republican governors. But nongovernmental agencies, such as World Relief and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, place the refugees, not the government, and those decisions are based on family ties, employment and other factors, not politics.
  • Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina repeatedly have claimed that the Obama administration plans to accept anywhere from 100,000 to 250,000 Syrian refugees. That’s false. By law, the administration can admit slightly more than 10,000 in fiscal year 2016, and no refugee commitments can be made beyond that.

What Religion Are the Syrian Refugees?

Cruz, a Republican candidate for president, has introduced the Terrorist Refugee Infiltration Prevention Act, which would bar the U.S. from accepting refugees from countries “containing terrorist-controlled territory,” specifically Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. The bill was introduced days after a series of deadly coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris by the terrorist group the Islamic State (or sometimes known as ISIS).

Cruz has said if the U.S. does admit Syrian refugees then it should only accept Christians.

In an interview on Fox News, Cruz criticized the Obama administration for admitting so few Syrian Christians.

Cruz, Nov. 19: And what’s astonishing among the Syrian refugees who’ve come to America — do you know that only 3 percent have been Christians? Why does the president get so angry at those of us who want to help provide a safe haven for Christians being persecuted, but he is not angry at ISIS terrorists.

Cruz is rounding up, but he is correct about the percentage of Christians among the Syrian refugees who have resettled in the United States.

A total of 2,290 Syrian refugees have arrived in the United States since fiscal year 2011, which is when the Syrian civil war began, through Nov. 20, according to the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center. Of those, only 62 were identified in the center’s database as Christian. That’s 2.7 percent, even though the Christian population in Syria is about 10 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook.

But Cruz isn’t telling the whole story.

It’s important to note that the Syrian refugees are referred to the U.S. by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

From 2013 though Nov. 17, the U.N. says it has referred 22,427 Syrian refugees to the U.S. for “resettlement consideration.” The U.N. could not tell us how many of the 22,427 U.N. referrals were Christian, and the State Department did not know how many Christian Syrians may have been rejected by the U.S. But we know the U.S. is drawing from a limited pool of applicants provided by the U.N. from a predominately Muslim country.

So what religion are the Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S.?

The vast majority are Sunni Muslims, who make up 2,128, or 93 percent, of the Syrian refugees in the U.S. The Sunnis are about 74 percent of the Syrian population, according to the CIA, but “they tend to support the rebels and oppose the Assad regime, and Syrian Sunnis have been subject to ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Alawite minority in recent months,” as the Washington Post reported on Oct. 18, 2012.

This explains why Sunni Muslims are disproportionately represented among Syrian refugees in the U.S., Andrew Tabler, a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute, told us in an email.

Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s regime is “made up of Alawites AND other minorities like Christians,” said Tabler, who wrote a 2011 book called “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.”

“The reason why is that most refugees are not displaced because of ISIS, but as a result of bombardments by the Assad regime,” Tabler told us, explaining the large percentage of Sunnis who have been admitted to the U.S. from Syria. “The regime has attempted (but failed) to shoot them into submission. Those fleeing the fighting who are not with the regime have to run to neighboring countries for protection and become refugees. And some of them eventually apply to come to the U.S. as refugees.”

Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA military analyst in the Middle East who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, offered two other possible factors.

“In addition, much of the fighting has taken place in heavily Sunni areas (because most of the country is Sunni),” Pollack said. “Finally, much of the Sunni-controlled territory is controlled by ISIS, and nobody except absolute lunatics WANT to live under ISIS.”

What’s the Demographic Makeup of Refugees?

Both sides in the refugee dispute have been making seemingly contradictory claims about the age and gender of the Syrian refugees — portraying them either as young males who are potential terrorists, or women and children who are victims of the Syrian civil war.

Cruz, in an interview with radio host Glenn Beck on Nov. 18, said 77 percent of the Syrian refugees “pouring into Europe right now” are young males — a claim that others, including Ben Carson, have made. His number is too high, but more important, it’s misleading since the majority of refugees are not in Europe or trying to get to Europe. Instead, they remain in other Middle East nations, such as Turkey and Jordan.

Meanwhile, President Obama said the “overwhelming numbers” of Syrian refugees referred to the U.S. by the U.N. are children and women. That’s true, according to data provided by the State Department.

We will first look at Cruz’s comment. Cruz is referring only to 850,000 refugees and migrants — not all from Syria — who have tried to enter Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea. About 62 percent of them are men, according to the U.N., not 77 percent, as Cruz said.

More important, they are just a subset of the total Syrian refugee population of more than 4.2 million.

Chris Boian, a spokesman for the UNHCR, told us the refugees crossing into Europe are typically not registered with the U.N. and will not be referred to the U.S.

“It’s very important for people to know there’s a big, big difference between the relative chaotic scene we’ve seen played out in Europe and the resettlement process in the United States,” Boian said.

Boian said those registered with the U.N. and now living in countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan will be among those who will be referred to the U.S.

As we have written before, the U.N. says there are more than 4 million registered Syrian refugees. The U.N. also provides the demographic makeup of 2.1 million refugees who were registered by the UNHCR in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. As of Nov. 17, those figures show that 70 percent are female (50.3 percent) and male children under 12 years old (19.7 percent).

Obama, for his part, said in remarks on Nov. 19 in the Philippines that the “overwhelming numbers who have been applying are children, women, families — themselves victims of terrorism.”

We asked the administration for a demographic breakdown of Syrian refugees who are seeking to resettle in the U.S., and it provided a chart that shows 23,826 total applicants — 15,937, or 67 percent, of whom are women (of all ages) and male children (age 0 to 11). Men (age 18 and older) accounted for 25.5 percent.

In short, the demographic breakdown of the Syrian refugees referred to the U.S. is virtually identical to that of the Syrian refugee population at large.

One last thing to consider: Not all 23,826 refugees referred to the U.S. will be admitted to the U.S. The Congressional Research Service says in a February 2015 report that the U.S. typically “aims to consider for resettlement at least half of the refugees” referred by the U.N.

Are Syrian Refugees Steered to Republican States?

Trump suggested the government steers Syrian refugees to states with Republican governors. That theory is not backed up by the data. And officials with groups that actually place the refugees — volunteer, nongovernmental agencies such as World Relief and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops — say placement decisions are based on family ties, employment and other factors, none of which include political considerations.

Trump made his claim during a radio interview on the “Laura Ingraham Show” on Nov. 17.

Trump, Nov. 17: They send them to the Republicans, not to the Democrats, you know, because they know the problems. In California, you have a Democrat as a governor. In Florida, you have Rick Scott [a Republican]. So you know they send them to the Republicans because you know why would we want to bother the Democrats? It’s just insane. Taking these people is absolutely insanity.

Data kept by the Refugee Processing Center show there have been 1,925 Syrian refugees relocated to the U.S. this calendar year (between Jan. 1, 2015, and Nov. 20, 2015). According to our tallies, nearly twice as many of them — 1,275 people — were placed in states with Republican governors than were placed in states with Democratic governors (650 refugees).

But there are also nearly twice as many states with Republican governors — 31 states have Republican governors; 18 have Democratic governors, and Alaska’s governor is an independent. On average, states with Republican governors had just over 41 Syrian refugees each compared with an average of just over 36 in states with Democratic governors. That’s not enough of a difference to suggest much of a trend.

Besides, officials who actually place refugees say Trump’s claim is unfounded. The way it works is that after the State Department has approved a refugee for resettlement in the U.S. — a process that can take up to two years — the refugee is referred to one of nine domestic resettlement agencies, each with a network of affiliates fanned across the country.

It is those resettlement agencies — which gather weekly — that make decisions about where to place new, incoming refugees.

The chief consideration is whether the refugee has family ties in the United States, said Matthew Soerens, a spokesman for World Relief, one of the nine resettlement agencies. If a refugee does, every effort is made to place that person near relatives. That is why, he said, larger numbers of Syrian refugees are placed in Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania and California, where there are small pockets of Syrian Americans.

Absent family ties in the U.S., Soerens said, the agencies try to relocate people where there are available jobs. Each of the nine resettlement agencies works with its network of affiliates spread across the country. In the case of World Relief, an evangelical organization, that network is often through evangelical church organizations.

“The idea that there’s some sort of conspiracy here [to relocate based on the politics of a state], that’s just not the case,” Soerens said. The politics of a state is simply not a consideration, he said.

Stacie Blake, director of government and community relations for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, another one of the nine agencies that place refugees, said the goal is to find a “welcoming community.” And so consideration is given to factors such as affordable housing, “friendly” employers, medical needs and public transportation.

In her experience, has political consideration ever entered the equation?

“Never ever have I heard of it. Ever,” Blake said.

How Many Syrians Will Be Admitted?

The Obama administration is not preparing to accept anywhere close to 250,000, or even 100,000 Syrian refugees, as some candidates for president have claimed.

At the Sunshine Summit on Nov. 14, Carly Fiorina said she was “angry that President Obama unilaterally decides that we will accept in this nation a hundred thousand Syrian refugees.”

Carson’s super PAC released a TV ad on Nov. 17 with audio of Carson claiming that Obama said “I’m going to bring 100,000 people in here from Syriaby executive order.

And in October, Trump said he “heard” that the Obama administration plans to accept 200,000 Syrian refugees. Trump has since increased the figure. He told those attending a rally in Texas on Nov. 14 that “our president wants to take in 250,000 from Syria.”

Each of those figures is wrong.

During a press briefing on Sept. 10, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that the president would direct his administration to prepare to accept at least 10,000 refugees from Syria in fiscal year 2016.

This is not done through an executive order, either. Each year, the president, after submitting a proposal to Congress, issues a determination on the number of refugees the country can accept for the fiscal year. The total set to be accepted from around the world in fiscal 2016 is 85,000.

Beyond the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sept. 20 that the administration’s goal is to increase the maximum number of refugees accepted from around the world to 100,000 in fiscal 2017. But no decision has been made and won’t be made until next year.

So, over the next two fiscal years, it is possible that the U.S. will accept 185,000 total refugees from around the world, but not just from Syria.

— Eugene Kiely, Robert Farley and D’Angelo Gore