Obama accepts 10,000 Syrian refugees, but it won’t happen soon
Washington - The Aylan effect made it to the doors of the White House. After the outcry in Europe caused by the photograph of the body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee, on the shores of the Mediterranean, US President Barack Obama instructed his administration to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2016.
However, Obama’s decision is proving polarising now that the United States has entered the 2016 election cycle.
Eleanor Acer of Human Rights First told the New York Times that 10,000 is “an embarrassingly low number”. Indeed, compared to Germany, which has pledged to take in 800,000 refugees, the number looks minuscule. Oxfam America is asking the United States to admit 70,000 Syrians. Since 2011, the United States has welcomed approximately 1,500 Syrian refugees; 4,000 applications are pending.
Some Democrats in Congress are pushing the administration to accept more refugees.
Senator Richard Durbin, of Illinois and the number two Democrat in the Senate, and 14 other Democratic senators wrote a letter to Obama saying “it is a moral, legal and national security imperative for the US to lead by example in addressing the world’s worst refugee crisis of our time”.
They, along with Democrats in the House of Representatives, urged the White House to allow 100,000 Syrians to enter the United States.
Republicans, however, have added Syrian refugees to the contentious issues of the 2016 election campaign. Anti-immigrant sentiment has played a major role in Republican politics and has propelled businessman Donald Trump into the lead for the Republican nomination.
Trump has pledged to build a wall along the US-Mexican border to prevent unauthorised immigration and says he will expel the 11 million immigrants who live in the United States without documentation.
On the day the White House announced the new policy of accepting 10,000 refugees, Trump, speaking at a campaign rally in Texas, said: “It is disgusting what is happening to our country. We are a dumping ground for the rest of the world.”
Although the Syrian refugee issue differs from the plight of Central American immigrants, in the eyes of many Republicans and conservatives in an election year distinctions are not important: an immigrant is an immigrant.
Other candidates tried to compete with Trump. The campaign of Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said the senator opposed settling Syrian refugees in the United States because of the “logistical challenges and the security risk”.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, another Republican candidate, took it to another level. He warned of the risks to US children “if what you are importing could be people who have a nefarious purpose for wanting to come here”. He was worried that Syrian refugees might face “language shock and cultural shock, perhaps a religious shock” in the United States.
Many of the opponents of accepting more Syrian refugees raise the issue of security risk.
They claim that many of the immigrants are coming from areas controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS) and could have ties to the terrorist group.
Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote a letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry on September 11th, stating: “Before agreeing to accept thousands of Syrian refugees, the Obama administration must prove to the American people that it will take the necessary precautions to ensure that national security is top priority, especially at a time when ruthless terrorist groups like ISIS are committed to finding ways to enter the US and harm Americans.”
Representative Peter King, R-New York, said, “We don’t want another Boston Marathon bombing situation.”
This anti-immigrant atmosphere, coupled with the long and arduous vetting process that the United States will subject these refugees to, will make any movement of refugees into the United States difficult.
Kenan Rahmani, a Syrian activist, said: “I don’t think it will happen. Some people in the Department of Homeland Security are saying that the security procedures in place for vetting are so strict it is impossible for the 10,000 to make it in the system in a year.” Even the White House emphasises that Obama will not allow easing background checks.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “Refugees go though the most robust security process of anybody who’s contemplating travel to the US.”
He added: “Refugees have to be screened by the National Counterterrorism Center and by the FBI Terrorist Screening Center.
They go through databases that are maintained by Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and the intelligence community. There is biographical and biometric information that is collected about these individuals.”
This is reminiscent of the “train-and-equip” programme that the United States has run for the moderate opposition in Syria. That programme aimed at training more than 5,000 Syrian fighters but, after spending millions of dollars over one full year of vetting, only 60 fighters were approved for the programme. And these are people who will stay in Syria.
How many years will it take to vet 10,000 Syrian refugees, most of whom lack official documents and have no access to their records?
Large numbers of Syrian refugees are not going to make it to the land of the “huddled masses” any time soon. In the meantime, Omar Hossino of the Syrian American Council said, “Instead of concentrating on letting them in, concentrate on keeping them home by solving the core problem.”