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U.S. welcomed its 10,000th Syrian refugee — is it time to do more?
As U.S. meets its Syrian refugee goal, a look at how its program stacks up internationally
By Matt Kwong, CBC News Posted: Aug 31, 2016 5:00 AM ET Last Updated: Aug 31, 2016 5:11 AM ET
"At least 10,000."
That's how many Syrian refugees U.S. Secretary of State John Kerrypromised last year to welcome by the end of this fiscal year. By Monday, the government had fulfilled its pledge.
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To hear the White House describe it, the effort was a success by several measures, demonstrating an ability to securely resettle migrants fleeing the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, and doing so nearly a month ahead of a Sept. 30 deadline.
But the per capita number of Syrian refugees accepted to the U.S. in fiscal 2016 remains dwarfed by goals set by Canada and some other nations. The 10,000 number might even sound low compared to the target of 65,000 that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has proposed.
Just how low?
"This isn't even the floor. This is the basement," said Jennifer Quigley, the refugee protection advocacy strategist for Human Rights First.
Quigley and other refugee advocates are pushing for the U.S. to double last year's global refugee resettlement goals to 200,000 for the next fiscal year, with half the spots reserved for Syrian migrants.
In a February 2016 report, Oxfam calculated that the U.S. had the capacity to absorb about 170,000 Syrian refugees this calendar year. That's 17 times more than the fiscal year pledge outlined for 2015-2016.
To determine what each nation's responsibility for accepting Syrian refugees ought to be, the humanitarian organization crunched the data based on the size of the economies of select nations and came up with what it calls a Fair Share Analysis
According to that analysis, the U.S. has accepted only seven per cent of what it would be expected to since 2013. Canada, which placed more than 30,000 Syrian refugees since the start of last November alone, had a 239 per cent Fair Share score. The Canadian score was based on a pledge of taking in 36,500 Syrian refugees since 2013.
"Canada has been in a really great place. Canada's just outpacing everybody else, aside from Germany, which is fantastic," Quigley said.
Germany, which settled nearly 42,000 refugees fleeing Syrian since 2013, had contributed 113 per cent of its fair share. Other nations highlighted for their Fair Share contributions included Australia, which scored 64 per cent, Sweden (60 per cent), Finland (85 per cent) and Iceland (63 per cent).
While refugee advocates were pleased the U.S. met its resettlement goals this fiscal year, Oxfam America's Noah Gottschalk notes that the announcement comes at an opportune time. Later this month, President Barack Obama is due to convene a summit on refugees at the United Nations General Assembly.
"At the summit to ask world leaders to do more to resettle refugees, it's incumbent for the U.S. to lead by example in this case," said Gottschalk, Oxfam America's senior policy advisor for humanitarian response.
"That 10,000 is a number we could do in our sleep. We were pushing for 10,000 because we thought it was the bare minimum, a number which, although incredibly modest, was at least a starting point."
The U.S. refugee policy post-Obama could vary widely, depending on political will from Congressional leaders to appropriate enough funds for resettlement programs, as well as the vision of the next president.
Although Clinton has called the 10,000 refugees goal a "good start," she said she wishes to expand the program to 65,000. Her Republican opponent has taken a different tack.
Donald Trump is due to deliver a major speech on immigration today from Phoenix, hours after he meets with President Enrique Pena Nieto in Mexico. His speech is expected to focus on undocumented illegal immigrants crossing the border from Mexico, but he may also bring up the U.S.'s handling of the Syrian refugee crisis.
In June, Trump called for the suspension of the State Department's Syrian refugee program, citing security concerns stemming from the "tremendous flow" of migrants.
"We don't know who they are, they have no documentation, and we don't know what they're planning," Trump said during a speech on national security and terrorism following the attack at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, which killed 49 people and wounded 53.
But Gottschalk argues that so-called Trojan Horse concerns about extremists blending in with vulnerable refugee populations are unjustified, cautioning against misinformation by political forces that have sown Islamaphobia.
Those distrustful of refugees often don't understand that they are fleeing the very violent extremism that the U.S. stands against, he says.
"If you're looking at where there's vulnerabilities in the U.S., the refugee program is not it," said Gottschalk.
A bipartisan letter to Congress signed by national security leaders in December 2015 reiterated that point, noting that refugees eligible for resettlement in the U.S. are "vetted more intensively than any other category of traveler" — a rigorous process that can sometimes take more than two years.
Previously, Trump has incorrectly claimed the U.S. has "no system to vet" refugees. His statement was determined to be false by the non-partisan fact-checking project PolitiFact in June.
"There's this narrative that we have no clue who these people are, they're going to show up here, God knows what they're going to do?" said Hans Hogrefe, director of policy at Refugees International. "These are myths and exaggerations and outright defamation against those people who have been carefully vetted and screened."
Welcoming immigrants and vulnerable populations is part of the U.S.'s DNA, Hogrefe says. But he stresses that the burden of hosting refugees can't fall on the U.S. alone.
"We can always do more," he says. "It's not about welcoming a specific number [of refugees]. We have to constantly challenge ourselves and say, can we do more? Can we do better?"
RI President Michel Gabaudan discussed the current situation in Aleppo, Syria on BBC World News America. View the video below.
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U.S. Is On Target To Accept And Resettle 10,000 Syrian Refugees
August 5, 2016 5:42 PM ET
The Obama administration is on track to make its goal of admitting and resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees before the end of September, despite concerns that Islamic militants could enter with them.
"The current pace of arrivals will continue thru the end of this fiscal year so we may exceed 10,000," said Anne Richard, assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugee and Migration in a conference call with reporters on Friday. "For next year, we will continue to welcome large numbers of Syrians."
After a slow start, the resettlements accelerated to 8,000 by early August; Syrian who have fled violence and persecution in their country's brutal civil war. More than half of the arrivals are under 18, according to Richard.
"It is moving fast. The month of July has been our busiest month," says Mahmoud Mahmoud, director of Church World Service in Jersey City, New Jersey. Church World Service is one of nine official resettlement agencies that implements the federal program. The Jersey City office resettled five Syrian families in July with more expected in the next two months, says Mahmoud.
"We do expect it to be heavy because we've received notification from the Department of State that they want to meet those numbers."
The Obama administration has been under intense pressure from aid agencies and advocacy groups that raised doubts the resettlement goals would be met. In May, more than half of the Democrats in the Senate signed a letter urging the president to accelerate the program after Canada resettled 25,000 Syrian refugees this year.
The administration's goal is now within sight despite a political backlash from Republicans. The Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, wants to ban anyone coming from an area with terrorism ties and a majority of governors, all but one a Republican, insist Syrian refugees are not welcome because some could pose a security threat. The opposition has grown after last year's terrorist attacks in Paris. State legislatures have proposed laws to bar refugees but state governors have no legal authority to halt federal immigration programs.
The opposition centers on concerns that security screenings are inadequate and Islamist militants could slip in among the newcomers.
Administration officials insist there are no security shortcuts. Leon Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said that "hundreds" of Syrians have been denied entry based on rigorous security check. "Our approval rates are 80 percent our denial rates are 7 percent with the remainder on hold," he said in a State Department briefing on Friday.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told reporters on Wednesday that the increase in arrivals was due to a "surge" of State Department and Homeland Security officials in the region and the vetting has been stepped up. "We have added security checks," he said, in an enhanced process specifically for Syrians.
The roughly 8,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in 38 states where nonprofit groups, faith-based communities, and volunteers organize resettlement.
"We don't just dump them some place in this country," Johnson told reporters, "they are resettled in communities that are able to absorb refugees."
Michel Gabaudan, president of Refugees International, an advocacy organization based in Washington, said there are multiple checks that begin with the United Nation's refugee agency. UNHCR identifies those who are most vulnerable which typically includes single mothers and children. The total of Syrians admitted to the U.S. include 78 percent women and children.
The U.S. security checks are stringent, he said. "I would even dare to say that if you are running an organization that wants to harm this country, there are much easier ways to come to the U.S. than to come as a resettled refugee."
Still, he said, 10,000 is a modest number compared to the refugees hosted by Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. In Lebanon, one person in four is a refugee.
"I hope that next year the U.S. will increase the number but it's sticking to your commitments," he said referring to the administration goal.
The goal will likely be met before Obama heads to the UN at the end of September to urge world leaders to admit more refugees and step up funding for relief organizations. For countries that host large number of refugees, Obama will urge them to "let refugees work and children to school," says the State Department's Anne Richard. The president is convening a "Refugee Summit" in New York to address a historic surge of civilian displacement, now an international crisis that stems primarily from wars in the Middle East and Africa.
RI President Michel Gabaudan discussed the current situation in the Mediterranean on BBC World News America. View the video below.
RI President Michel Gabaudan moderated a panel at Georgetown University on the experience of three Syrian refugee activists in the U.S. The UNHCR Regional Representative in Washington Shelly Pitterman and the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Simon Henshaw also participated. “Through Our Eyes: Insights from Syrian Refugees in the United States” was held at Georgetown University’s Riggs Library.
View a video of the event here.
RI President spoke with Voz de América about Syrian refugee resettlement. View the video below.