State Department spokesman seeks to assuage fear of terrorists slipping in with asylum seekers
The Obama administration says it’s “actively considering” ways to help ease Europe’s migrant crisis, including allowing more refugees into the U.S. NPR reported Tuesday.
As for what steps the U.S. might take, the White House says it is looking at “a range of approaches to be more responsive to the global refugee crisis, including with regard to refugee resettlement.”
There has been speculation that the administration could make an announcement about taking more refugees when Pope Francis visits Washington, D.C., later this month.
A US government official who served for years in the Middle East said in an interview that there is pressure from Syrian-American constituents to members of Congress to increase numbers. “At the same time, there is pressure from Turkey for the US and European countries to do more,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of his position.
“Syrian refugees have gone to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey,” he said. “Jordan doesn’t have the infrastructure to sustain them. One-fifth of the people in Lebanon are refugees from Syria. In Turkery, there are almost 2 million refugees from Syria, but Turkey has 77 million people, so it’s more bearable than in Lebanon.”
Last week, the State Department said the US is likely to admit about 1,800 Syrian refugees by the end of this fiscal year, which is October.
“We’ve certainly – in light of the significant number of Syrian refugees displaced, we’ve made substantial efforts this year to facilitate increased refugee admissions in this – from this population,” said Mark C. Toner, deputy spokesman, in the State Department’s daily press briefing Sept. 3.
He said that any solution to these kinds of migration challenges “should focus on saving and protecting lives, ensuring human rights of all migrants are respected, and promoting orderly and humane migration policies.”
In the US, the president sets an annual limit to the number of refugees it accepts. This year, the ceiling is 70,000 worldwide. USA Today reported that a coalition of religious and relief groups, 14 Democratic senators and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, have been calling for the US to allow 65,000 Syrian refugees.
At least 850,000 people are expected to cross the Mediterranean seeking refuge in Europe this year and next, the United Nations said on Tuesday. So far in 2015, more than 367,000 refugees and migrants have have arrived. More than 244,000 have come in through Greece, and at least 121,000 have landed in Italy.
The largest wave of migrants Europe has seen since the end of the Second World War has been causing tumult and not a little suspicion. While many European leaders have been seeking ways to accommodate true asylum seekers, and Pope Francis called on all Catholic parishes and religious institutions throughout Europe to open their doors, there has been a fair share of resistance. Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban has warned that Christian traditions in Europe are under threat from newcomers from Muslim countries. Slovakia have said it would take only Christian migrants.
Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that Hungarian Bishop Laszlo Kiss-Rigo, whose diocese is in the area experiencing the heaviest flow of migrants, warned bluntly: “They’re not refugees. This is an invasion. They come here with cries of ‘Allahu Akbar.’ They want to take over.”
Some in Congress have also urged caution. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chaired a hearing on the issue in June and expressed concerns that “terrorist groups may seek to use Syrian refugee programs as a gateway to carry out attacks in Europe and America,” USA Today reported.
The State Department tried to assuage such fears.
“Folks coming from that part of the world, that region, we need to obviously conduct a thorough review process,” Toner told reporters last week. “I’ve been told it takes anywhere up to 18 to 24 months, so it’s time-consuming.”
He reemphasized later in the press conference, “There’s a lot of terrorist groups operating in that region, in that part of the world, and we need to make sure that…. The longer-term solution remains a political resolution to the conflict in Syria and in other places, but mostly in Syria, and that’s why we need a credible peace process. We need [Syrian leader Bashar al] Assad to step aside. We need a peace process that adheres to the Geneva communique, that creates a stable, secure Syria. We need to destroy ISIS. We need to get ISIS out of the picture. We need to create an environment where these refugees can ultimately return home, which is where they want to be.
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio also cautioned that the US “would be potentially open to the relocation of some of these individuals at some point in time to the United States.”
“We’d always be concerned that within the overwhelming number of the people seeking refugee, someone with a terrorist background could also sneak in,” he said.
CNN said that the process for Syrians seeking asylum in the US is “complicated by a long security vetting procedure meant to ensure that only desperate refugees—not extremists—reach American soil. It typically takes 18 months before a refugee designated for resettlement in the United States can actually set foot in the country.”