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The security challenge of resettling Syrian refugees in the U.S.

September 11, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
The White House has announced that 10,000 Syrians will be resettled in the U.S. over the next year. How will those refugees be selected? Daryl Grisgraber of Refugees International and former Deputy National Security Advisor Juan Zarate join Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For some refugees, the United States will be the final stop on that exhausting journey. Yesterday, the White House announced that 10,000 Syrians will be resettled in the U.S. over the next year.

For more on how those 10,000 will be screened and selected, I’m joined by Daryl Grisgraber, senior advocate for the Middle East at Refugees International, and Juan Zarate, former deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism.

So, Daryl, let me start with you.

How does a refugee get from some of those scenes that we have seen in this program and so many others to a country like the U.S.?

DARYL GRISGRABER, Refugees International: Yes, it’s a fairly complicated process with quite a lot of steps.

When a person first — for example, if we use Syrians as an example — flee Syria, goes to say, Jordan, in Jordan, they register with the United Nations, specifically the United Nations Refugee Agency. The United Nations will then do an interview, get a lot of biographical information, history, family members, that sort of thing, and try to decide if that person’s eligible for resettlement and if that’s the appropriate tool to protect that person.

Not everybody gets resettled. It’s quite a small number. And then from there, the U.N. will make referrals to various countries that accept refugees, for example, the United States. And the United States then goes another huge process of vetting those people to make sure it’s OK to let them into the U.S.

It takes about two years on average, sometimes longer. So it’s quite a slow process, yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And how do you do that for 10,000, 100,000 or whatever the final number is, whichever the countries are that are accepting them?

JUAN ZARATE Former Deputy National Security Advisor: Well, keep in mind, last year, we settled only 1,500. And now we’re talking about 10,000. It’s an exponential increase in the numbers.

And in terms of screening for security purposes, as Daryl indicated, you have an entire additional process in the U.S. context, where refugees receive the highest level of security check of anyone traveling to the U.S., and in that context, the Syrian refugees, the highest level of scrutiny.

And so that is biometric data that’s checked, biographic data that’s checked, interviews from the Department of Homeland Security, the intelligence community looking at whatever information they have around that individual, their family, their networks, to determine whether or not there’s a security risk in that person resettling to the U.S.

So that is time-intensive. And in the context of Syria, where the U.S. hasn’t had the benefit of being on the ground, like it was in Iraq or Afghanistan, you don’t have a lot of information. And so we’re grasping in the dark to determine what the risk is of bringing some of these people to the U.S.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So what are the agencies involved? Who pays for all this?

DARYL GRISGRABER: Well, within the government, the State Department is involved.

U.S. CIS, Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is within the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is within Health and Human Services, and there are a number of voluntary agencies involved as well. So there’s some private-public partnership once people actually reach the United States.


I think the concern also, Juan, is these security checks, especially considering ISIS and how dominant it is in Syria, what is the likelihood of a bad actor getting through the system?

JUAN ZARATE: Well, you have already heard the director of national intelligence, Director Clapper, talk about the intelligence community’s concerns about precisely that, the fact that the Islamic State, for example, could use refugee flows to implant individuals, operatives, sleeper cells into the United States.

And the challenge, of course, for the counterterrorism community, not unlike other challenges that they have to face, is that we’re not talking about huge numbers. You can talk about just a handful or a dozen among that population that you’re letting in that could be problematic, hitting soft targets and presenting other problems.

And so the intelligence community is incredibly conservative. As part of its vetting process, you have the National Counterterrorism Center and others looking at as much data as possible. And, frankly, at the end of the day, it’s about risk management. How much risk are we willing to take, given what is likely to be a lack of clear information about who is actually coming in?

And we know terrorists in the past have tried to use this process. We have got a few cases in the U.S. of populations within refugees supporting terrorist groups. Not a lot, but the risk of just one or two is considered high for the intelligence community.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So considering that there’s going to be this many layers of checks and it could take this long, how do we deal with this kind of volume?

DARYL GRISGRABER: Well, we get it going as quickly as possible.

I would say first, the 1,500 refugees that Juan mentioned is a very small number for the U.S. addressing an emergency situation like this. We’re talking about four million Syrians who potentially need protection. Not all of them will be resettled, only a small number. But it’s important to get the flow of the process going as quickly as possible, because the security checks in particular take quite a long time, as you know.

And sometimes it has to be done more than once. Sometimes, medical checks or security clearance have expired while another process is going on. So, there’s a lot of stopping and restarting in many cases. And so all of this needs to be addressed as quickly as possible, so really dedicating the financial resources and machine power to it will make a lot of difference.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And during this time, these people are not in the United States. They’re in that sort of first country where they registered.

DARYL GRISGRABER: Yes. Yes. No, they stay in that country.

And, remember, resettlement is a protection tool. They’re — people are chosen for settlement because they’re vulnerable and need to be relocated for their own safety. But with how slow the process is, sometimes, they will stay in that vulnerable situation for a couple of years at a time until the resettlement process is done.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so what about the increased threat level when — I guess it depends on how they’re received in these different communities, even in the place where they’re waiting or in the country where they finally get to.

JUAN ZARATE: It’s a great point, because this in some ways is the perfect storm of both a humanitarian crises, but also security crisis short and long term.

The short term is what we talked about, which is the Islamic State taking advantage, putting sleeper cells in, et cetera, maybe not a high likelihood, but perhaps high consequence.

But you also do have the challenge of displaced communities and populations being radicalized, falling prey to the lure of the ideology that has brought others to the forces of the Islamic State, and a real challenge, I think, for all of the receiving countries to make sure that there’s welcoming environment, resources and an ability to integrate as well as possible these populations, because one of the things we have seen in counterterrorism is one factor, not the only, but one factor that leads to radicalization, that leads to individuals going to fight abroad is not being integrated, not finding a way into the society in which they have moved.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Juan Zarate, Daryl Grisgraber, thanks so much.


JUAN ZARATE: Thank you.