By: Nia Harris
The Syrian refugee crisis has been on the forefront of many people’s minds. Some worry about human rights violations and the atrocities being committed while others worry about the threat of terrorism. Many argue that terrorism and the rise of Islamic extremism is justification enough to keep Syrian refugees out of our country. But, just how easy is it to get here in the first place? What many of us do not know is that there is an intense process of resettlement that can take years to complete–if completed at all.
According to U.N. data, there are approximately 65 million refugees in the world—more than 4.8 million of them being from Syria. Many of the Syrian refugees fled the conflict and escaped to neighboring countries, particularly Turkey and Jordan. While both countries are significantly safer, many of them are forced to live in refugee camps. The camps have limited security and access to resources, forcing residents to live in tents and do whatever they can for basic necessities. Because of the lack of opportunity in the camps, many residents attempt to gain asylum in a third, more developed country like the United States.
At this point, the process of resettlement has already begun with:
Step 1: Escaping Conflict
The conflict began in 2011 when protesters took to the streets to demand President Assad’s resignation. Rather than resigning, Assad turned against protesters, which led many different rebel groups to rise up against the regime. This is the point where things began to take a turn. Among the small rebel groups were several Islamic extremist groups, such as ISIS, who not only wanted control but also wanted to establish fundamentalist regimes. As the fighting continued and other nations such as the United States, France and Russia began to get involved, it became apparent that war crimes were being committed on all sides. This, combined with constant bombing prompted many to flee to neighboring Jordan, which currently has 1.5 million refugees. For some, they attempt to simply gain residence in their new countries, but many others choose to move a country with more economic opportunity, which brings us to the next step.
Step 2: Reaching an Embassy
Just because refugees escape conflict does not mean that they are guaranteed a better life. Contrary to popular belief, one cannot hop on a plane to New York with no questions asked. Refugees must reach the embassy of the country they wish to move to first. Once there, they have to fill out all of the forms necessary to move to the United States, which can become an issue if refugees do not speak the language. While many Syrian refugees speak Arabic, there are also many local languages and dialects that can create issues when attempting to gather necessary information and fill out forms. Although this seems like the end of the road, the process can continue for many refugees, which leads to step three.
Step 3: Proving Refugee Status
Once a refugee and their family reach the embassy, they have to prove that they are actually refugees. While this seems a little unnecessary, given that they fled a war torn country, it is an essential part of the process. To be considered a refugee, an individual must prove that they have a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. This part of the process also seems simple, but it is difficult for many Syrian refugees to prove their status, especially when there are so many groups fighting against each other. For many, the journey stops here because they are unable to provide tangible proof of their refugee status, but for the lucky few that do continue on, they proceed to the next step.
Step 4: The Medical Exam
All individuals must go through a medical exam to determine whether or not they are carrying any communicable diseases. This does ensure the health and safety of American citizens; however, many people with pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes or hypertension, can put their refugee status in jeopardy. No country wants to take in thousands of sick and frail individuals. Naturally, the healthiest individuals would contribute the most to the new society meaning that many people with even minor health issues could potentially fail the medical exam and be denied. At this point many Syrian families are forced to decide whether to stay with the sick relative or continue on to the United States and leave them behind. Some choose to stay while others make the difficult decision to continue onward and try to bring their relatives to the United States.
Step 5: The Interview
All approved refugees must be interviewed by a USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) officer. This is normally the last major hurdle before refugee status is approved. It is the role of the USCIS officer to determine whether or not the individuals had any ties to any anti-American groups or any other drastic behavior that could be a threat to public safety. Unfortunately, many refugees aligned themselves with rebel groups, ISIS included, in an effort to protect themselves and their families. This is detrimental to their case, and the likelihood that they will be approved is non-existent. For those who are denied after their interview, it is possible to apply again, but the road usually ends here.
With all of this in mind, it is clear that it is not as easy as we think to gain refugee status and move to the United States. Does this mean that we should not be as concerned as we are? One the one hand, terrorism is a tangible fear for Americans, and there are extremists groups who want to destroy the country. On the other hand, when we block refugees from coming in, who exactly are we keeping out? Given that we are an ocean away from most of the conflict, we have an easier time controlling who comes in and out. The process of going from refugee to citizenship is arduous. Many people have put this issue into the forefront of politics yet it is clear that they do not have a clear grasp of the actual process. Some believe it is as simple as boarding a flight and requesting asylum once you land, but how can we have such strong feelings about an issue that we truly do not understand?
Can we as responsible Americans decide to keep people out who have already been screening vigorously before even having the opportunity to resettle? I will be the first to admit that this is a difficult question to answer, and there is truly no right answer; however, I think it is important to remember that the refugees themselves are not the threat. Brutal regimes and fundamental extremists drove them from their homes with nothing but what they could carry, and now they are at the world’s door, asking for help. How can we pride ourselves on being a country of immigrants and a beacon of hope in a stormy sea when we shut out those who need our help the most? We have spent so many years being afraid of a threat that we cannot identify that we have become callous. I would never advocate sacrificing national security for the sake of setting an example for the rest of the world. There is one thing I do wholeheartedly believe we can sacrifice though–our pride.