A House of Representatives Homeland Security subcommittee held a hearing Wednesday on the possible security risks involved with resettling some of the estimated 4 million refugees from the brutal civil war in Syria in the United States.
Most lawmakers at the hearing agreed there is a need to balance very real humanitarian and diplomatic concerns about Syrians who have had to flee to neighboring countries with legitimate security concerns in the West.
The subcommittee chairman, Republican Peter King of New York, said the United States has a long and proud history of providing a haven for refugees, including the late Tom Lantos, who was a congressman and champion of human rights, and iconic scientist Albert Einstein. King also pointed out that four years of conflict in Syria have made this one of the biggest refugee crises in history, with no end in sight.
But King and other lawmakers from both parties said they had heard government officials and security experts express concern that the self-proclaimed Islamic State and other militant groups might try to use Syrian refugee programs as a gateway to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe.
Gaps in intelligence
Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation said there were two main reasons why refugees from the conflict in Syria could pose a greater risk than refugees from past wars.
“First, [there are] more foreign fighters than we have seen in any modern battlefield, and second, our intelligence picture is clearly much worse,” he said.
All of the witnesses at Wednesday's hearing agreed that the U.S. has a void of human intelligence sources in Syria and no partner in the Syrian government to help vet Syrian refugees.
Most of Syria’s refugees have fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
King asked if it would make sense for the U.S. to focus on vetting refugees who have settled in Jordan. The witnesses agreed that Jordan most likely has the best vetting system to make sure refugees do not have terrorist ties, but said the U.S. would still need to conduct its own time-consuming, multilayered process, which would include personal interviews with would-be asylum seekers.
The United States has taken in only about 1,000 Syrian refugees so far, while Germany has taken in an estimated 30,000. The experts at the hearing pointed out that Syrian refugees are arriving in Germany by taking the North Africa-Mediterranean route, and Germany decided to carry out a special program for Syrians.
Humanitarian aid called vital
Daryl Grisgraber of the relief organization Refugees International, based in Washington, told VOA that while the resettlement process is slow, the U.S. is the world's No. 1 provider of humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees.
"I think continuing to send humanitarian aid to the region is extremely important," he said. "Because the fact is that the huge majority of refugees — not just Syrians, but all over the world — are not going to be resettled. They don’t qualify for that sort of protection.”
Grisgraber said the U.S. and the international community should also step up efforts to forge a political solution to the bloody conflict, so that Syria again becomes a safe place for its citizens to live.