As the first Syrian refugees arrive in the US under a new fast-track resettlement effort, the head of the UN Refugee Agency’s resettlement program in Jordan lauds the cooperation with Washington.
While Europe has been struggling to cope with an unprecedented influx of Syrian refugees in recent months, the US has been reluctant to open its doors to large numbers of refugees due to security concerns and a toxic political debate about immigration.
So it was against strong political opposition from many Republicans and state officials that President Obama announced in September of last year his plan to "surge" the number of Syrian refugees accepted to at least 10,000 by the end of September 2016.
Seven months after Obama's pledge the first Syrians arrived in the US on Thursday under the newly instituted program to fast-track the resettlement of Syrian refugees.
The seven-member al-Abboud family arrived in Kansas City after living three years in Jordan where the US has recently set-up a special facility to enable the fast-track resettlement process. Before his departure to the US from Jordan, Ahmad al-Abboud told the Associated Press he was "ready to integrate in the US and start a new life."
Most vulnerable cases
Ahmad al-Abboud, who is from Homs in Syria and was living in Jordan with his family on food aid, is fairly typical of the refugees the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) submits for resettlement to US authorities, Myriam Baele, the head of the UN resettlement program in Jordan, told DW.
"We are identifying the most vulnerable cases," Baele said. Like the al-Abbouds most are on cash assistance because they have no financial means to sustain themselves, have medical conditions or are survivors of torture and violence.
So far, said Baele, her team has submitted about 13,000 Syrians to the US for resettlement after vetting them and making sure they qualify as refugees according to the UN's definition. The information passed on to American authorities includes not only biographical information and biometric data, but also any information related to their refugee claim, she said.
US authorities then conduct a pre-screening interview with the individuals who then have to go through another interview via the US Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services to check whether they fall within the US definition of a refugee. Finally, explained Baele, they have to get a security clearance.
"So there is a whole range of measures and safeguards in place both from UNHCR and the US to make sure the person who arrives there is a refugee and certainly not a criminal," said Baele who lauds the cooperation with the US on the new fast-track program as "excellent."
While Baele believes the US is "on track" to reach its ambitious goal to resettle at least 10,000 Syrians, most of them from Jordan, by the end of September, Susan Fratzke is not so sure.
Fratzke, an expert on the US refugee processing system with the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute thinks that "anything that can be done to speed that process up and make sure that we come close to reaching that number will be beneficial."
With Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump and others routinely stoking anxiety and resentment at Muslims and immigrants the political climate in the US is certainly not conducive to allowing thousands of Syrian refugees into the country less than six months before the presidential election.
"This is a difficult time for the US resettlement program, but I would like to think that we would continue our tradition of welcoming refugees on the local level in particular," said Fratzke. She contends that most of the worries Americans have about allowing in refugees stems from a misunderstanding or lack of information about the resettlement process coupled with fear-mongering by certain presidential candidates.
"Of course no one can be 100 percent certain about anyone, but refugees are really vetted more heavily than anyone admitted to the country through any other program whether an immigration or visitors program," Fratzke said.
Possible campaign topic
But in the history of the resettlement program since 9/11, she noted, there have been only three cases of out tens of thousands of people resettled where a refugee admitted in the program was actually brought forward on charges related to terrorism. And in those cases, said Fratzke, it wasn't related to plotting an attack, it was with regard to giving money to an organization that was on the US terrorist watch list.
Despite these facts, Fratzke wouldn't be surprised if the US' Syrian refugee resettlement effort resurfaces in a noxious way during the remainder of the presidential race.
"Given how extreme some of the rhetoric has been in this election campaign there is every chance that it will get brought into that conversation."
US leads global resettlement
But Fratzke also feels that the sole focus on the Syrian refugee resettlement issue tends to overshadow the broader and more positive picture that emerges when one looks at the US' general record on resettlement.
"There are many other people elsewhere who are displaced and also in need of resettlement and the US has had the largest resettlement program in the world taking over 60 percent of the world's resettled refugees since the program began," she said. "There is quite a lot more we could be doing, but this is important to note."
Last year, as every year, the US led the UNHCR's list of the world's top resettlement countries with 53,000 departures, ahead of Canada (10,000) and Australia (5,000), even though it resettled only a very small number of Syrians.
While the US has come late in allowing Syrian refugees to resettle, the effort is now making a difference, said UNHCR's Baele. "They have been very generous to take a number of cases that for us were some of most vulnerable of the vulnerable cases."