The Obama administration would like to further increase the number of Syrian refugees that it resettles in the United States, but it must balance that desire with the need to thoroughly check the backgrounds of those considered for admission, a top State Department official said Thursday.
The United States has committed to admitting at least 10,000 Syrian refugees during the next fiscal year, which begins in October. Previously, about 1,700 Syrians had been resettled in the U.S. since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011.
Anne Richard, assistant secretary of state for population, refugee and migration, said the U.S. was considering another increase in its Syrian resettlement numbers for fiscal 2017. However, she said the 65,000 to 100,000 admissions that some refugee groups and lawmakers have called for is currently unattainable.
“We can not physically move that many people, that quickly, through the process to get here in order to reach those kinds of high aspirational numbers,” Richard said.
A primary reason the U.S. cannot physically move such a large number of people is stipulations in the vetting process for refugees required under U.S. policy. That process includes an in-person interview by a Department of Homeland Security official, security checks and a medical exam before the refugee is brought to the United States.
“At any given time, we are processing cases in 70 or more locations worldwide with a limited amount of resources,” a State Department official said.
“It currently takes anywhere from 18 to 24 months or even longer to process a case from referral or application to arrival in the United States,” the official said.
'Big push' for streamlining
Richard said the Obama administration wants to make a ‘big push” in the coming months to see whether the lengthy process can be streamlined.
“But, again,” she said, “we only want to streamline it if it can be done without giving up on these important security pieces.”
More than 4 million people have fled Syria since the country’s civil unrest erupted in 2011. The vast majority of Syrian refugees have settled in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
Without criticizing the U.S. decision to resettle about 10,000 Syrians next year, Laura Thompson of the International Organization for Migration urged every country to do as much as it can to help the refugees.
“Ten thousand obviously is not enough, or 140,000 that Europe is talking about is not enough when you have three countries that have around 3.5 million,” she said.
Migration Policy Institute co-founder Kathleen Newland said the U.S. and other world powers also should expand efforts to help the U.N. refugee agency, which has only about one-third of the funding it needs.
“They are having to cut food rations to refugees, and those refugees are getting really, really desperate. They are unable to feed their children, unable to pay rent,” Newland said.
She said world powers should consider broadening the types of programs available to help people relocate from troubled areas.