Refugees and National Security

As Election Day approaches (it's November 8th, so make sure you're registered to vote!), it is becoming more important than ever that we are well informed before making decisions about Congressmen and women, legislation, and who will be our nation's next President. The timing of the refugee crisis in Europe and various terrorist attacks across the globe have  made issues of immigration and refugee resettlement central in the months leading up to this election. While I can't address all the fine points of refugees and national security here, I will focus on several major points and direct you to places where you can find even more information.

Concern 1: Refugees do not undergo sufficient screening.

This concern about refugees and national security has been raised over and over again in the last year. It blows a small, resolvable issue out of proportion and results in making a long and stringent screening process seem inadequate. Before being approved for resettlement in the US, refugees and their families go through years of screenings, interviews, and security checks. When a refugee is first forced to flee his or her home country to seek refuge and protection in another state, they must register for refugee status with the UNHCR. A lengthy process of interviews, fact checking, and corroboration between family members will determine if they qualify for international protection. This process is referred to as "Refugee Status Determination" or RSD.

[bctt tweet="Concern: #refugee screening is insufficient. #Truth: refugees undergo years of interviews by UN & US. " username="refugee_review"]

Once a refugee has been granted refugee status they may be considered for resettlement. Only .5-1% of all refugees are ever resettled, so the chances for most are next to impossible. The UNHCR refers or recommends refugees to resettlement countries like the US, and each country has their own unique criteria for who they will resettle. For example, Australia will not accept any refugees with injuries or health issues, even if it is something fairly harmless like asthma. The US, on the other hand, specifically resettles the most vulnerable refugee cases. This means that many refugees resettled in the US are single parent families, victims of torture or imprisonment, those with serious medical issues, and the elderly. When a refugee is referred to the US for resettlement by the UNHCR, they then undergo more interviews, background checks, and medical checks. Their story is checked against experts and others who can confirm that their reasons for fleeing their country were legitimate and actually happened. The US screening process takes 18-24 months and if everything checks out, they can finally arrange travel to the US.

Those who feel this screening is not sufficient to eliminate the risk of terrorists entering the US under the guise of refugee resettlement often argue that background checks cannot be made for people whose country is a war zone and whose documents and records may have been destroyed. This is a legitimate argument, however, those making it fail to consider the vast amount of time it takes for most refugees to finally be referred for resettled, screened, and then finally arrive in the US. On average, refugees spend 17 years waiting for some kind of resolution to their situation (in camps or in an urban setting). This means that an average of 17 long years go by before a refugee is even referred to the US for resettlement. During that time new records and documents will have been created if the old ones had been destroyed. If a refugee was being radicalized or actively planning a terrorist attack there would be some opportunity for UNHCR or others to find out.

Put briefly, while we should never grow complacent about ensuring that our refugee resettlement program does not compromise our national security in any way, it is also grossly overstated to say that our current screening process is insufficient to do that.

Additional Resources

UNHCR Refugees Status Determination Handbook (200 pages of guidelines and procedures for ensuring that a refugee really is a refugee.)

Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security, explains the US refugee screening process in this excellent video.

Concern 2: Refugees are mostly men.

This concern is false since the numbers of refugees worldwide are equally split between men and women. Over half of refugees are also children under 18 years old. If one combines those statistics it means that less than 25% of the world's refugees are adult males. This concern clearly does not arise from fact, so where has it come from? Pictures of refugees crossing the Mediterranean and surging across European borders often show mostly men. Statistically it is true that the majority of asylum seekers and migrants who arrived in Europe in 2015 were men. Why is this?

[bctt tweet="Concern: #Refugees are mostly men. #Truth: Only 25% of all refugees are adult males. " username="refugee_review"]

I propose that it is actually not because they are all Muslim extremists who want to undermine our Western civilization and terrorize our families. There are two categories of men fleeing to Europe - married and unmarried. Many of the unmarried men are escaping mandatory conscription into the military (Eritrea), being forced to take sides in a civil war (Syria), or being captured by terrorist groups like ISIS. I believe that many of the married men who have wives and children to provide for decided to make the dangerous journey on their own and send for their families later once they received asylum, in order to protect them. Now, I say "many" because there is little to no data on these more specific reasons why so many men have traveled to Europe. There are, however, many personal accounts that support this way of thinking. Also keep in mind that most migrants and asylum seekers who have arrived in Europe over the past 18 months have not undergone any kind of screening (either RSD or screening by a resettlement country) due to the open nature of Europe's borders. Such an uncontrolled influx cannot happen in the US because geographical reality prevents it.

Additional Resources

UNHCR Global Trends Report 2015 (an annual detailed look at forced migration trends, including useful charts, graphs, and statistics).

Concern 3: Most refugees being resettled in the US are Muslims

In order for this concern to be accurate at least 51% of refugees resettled during the last year would need to be Muslims. Those who boldly brandish this concern make it sound like the percentage of Muslim refugees resettled is significantly higher than 51%. But the facts and data say something different. In fiscal year 2016 (which ended just last week on September 30th) only 46% of the approximately 85,000 refugees resettled in the US self-identified as Muslims. 44% were Christians, and the remaining 10% were from a mix of other religions.

[bctt tweet="Concern: Too many #refugees in US are #Muslim. #Truth: US resettles based on need, not #religion. " username="refugee_review"]

While most years the percentage of Christian refugees is slightly more than Muslim refugees, the data was reversed this year. Why? Contrary to what some have implied (or said outright), it is not because the Obama administration, or anyone else, is specifically trying to resettle more Muslim refugees than Christians. Recall how I pointed out above under concern 1 that the US specifically resettles the most vulnerable populations? That is our criteria for resettlement, not religion. From year to year political situations around the world shift and the countries that most refugees are fleeing from may be different than they were before. New conflicts begin and others are finally resolved. Syria has been torn apart by civil war for over five years, and last year President Obama promised to offer resettlement places to at least 10,000 Syrians, in addition to the 75,000 resettlement places already available for other refugees. Syria is about 93% Muslim, so it was this generous increase that resulted in more Muslims being resettled this year than Christians. A similar situation happened in 2006 when record numbers of Muslim Somali refugees were in need of resettlement. However, since 2004 the percentages of both Muslim and Christian refugees have stayed pretty constant.

Additional Resources:

This article from Pew Research includes a graph that demonstrates the fact that Muslim refugee arrivals have increased as overall refugee arrivals have also increased, keeping the relative percentages fairly constant.

Seeking Refuge, published by World Relief this summer, includes a wealth of information about all of these concerns. I highly recommend reading it before you make your election decisions!