While traditionally a world leader in refugee resettlement, the U.S. has faced criticism for its response to the Syrian conflict.
WASHINGTON — Advocacy groups are expressing disdain for the Obama administration’s promise to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees during the next fiscal year, saying the number is too low and voicing skepticism that the thousands of Syrians in the resettlement pipeline will reach the United States anytime soon.
The Obama administration acknowledged Friday that it will be difficult to resettle 10,000 refugees in the next year. But officials called the goal “achievable” and defended the U.S. response.
While traditionally a world leader in refugee resettlement, the United States has faced criticism for its response to the Syrian conflict; only about 1,600 Syrians have been resettled since the beginning of the civil war that started in 2011 that’s killed more than 200,000 and displaced millions in what advocates call the worst such crisis since World War II.
“It’s a good signal that we’re responding to the crisis but, functionally, it’s not a meaningful dent given the scope of the crisis,” said Katherine Reisner of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project at the New York-based Urban Justice Center. “It’s also not meaningful relative to historical precedent. After Vietnam, we were able to have over 200,000 South Vietnamese come to the United States within a year.”
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At the State Department, spokesman John Kirby rejected criticism that the U.S. response to the crisis was “some sort of paltry decision or it’s not enough.”
“It’s not going to be insignificant for the 10,000 Syrians who’ll get to come to this country,” he said.
Kirby added that the U.S. had met its cap of 70,000 refugee resettlements in fiscal 2014 and was on track to meet the same number this year. He emphasized the administration plan was for “at least” 10,000 Syrians to be resettled, implying more could be admitted.
That sounds ambitious to refugee advocates such as Reisner, whose experience handling the cases of Iraqis and Afghans shows a system that operates at a glacial pace, with applicants waiting well beyond the average 18 to 24 months estimated by the State Department.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration expects to admit 10,000 Syrians within the next fiscal year because they’ll come from the 18,000 who already have been referred to the United States by the U.N. refugee agency. Since June 2014, the official said, the U.N. has referred 500 to 1,000 Syrians for resettlement in the United States each month.
Typically, the biggest snags come during the security vetting process, which the State Department official said involves multiple layers and separate screenings from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Defense Department, the National Counterterrorism Center and other agencies.
A blow to the resettlement program came in 2011, when two resettled Iraqis were arrested in Bowling Green, Ky., and charged with trying to send weapons and cash to al-Qaida. Both pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and lying about their backgrounds when they applied for refugee status.