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25 January 2016


Mahmoud al-Haj Ali, 57, a Syrian refugee, at the supermarket in Aurora, Ill., where his twin sons work. Credit: Peter van Agtmael/Magnum, for The New York Times

Why Is It So Difficult for Syrian Refugees to Get Into the U.S.?

Of the 4.5 million people who have fled the Syrian war since 2011, only 2,647 have been taken in by the United States, writes Eliza Griswold in The New York Times Magazine.

The scale of the crisis is such that of the 20 million refugees flooding the world today, one in four is Syrian. Although President Obama has committed to bringing at least 10,000 more Syrians to the United States by this October, that number is still a trickle compared with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s effort to resettle 25,000 in Canada; Chancellor Angela Merkel’s acceptance of nearly 93,000 in Germany last fall; and President François Hollande’s promise to bring 30,000 more Syrian refugees to France over the next two years. Why has the United States taken so few?

‘‘It’s extremely difficult to get into the United States as a refugee — the odds of winning the Powerball are probably better,’’ says David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee, which helps place refugees from 40 countries in American cities. And Syrians are subject to an extra degree of vetting. Although all refugees are screened by the National Counterterrorism Center, the F.B.I., the Defense Department, the State Department and United States Customs and Border Protection, among other intelligence agencies, Syrians must complete what is known as the Enhanced Syrian Review.

This is an added screening by caseworkers at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Washington, which assesses each Syrian case and selects some for processing through the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate office.

This extra step was put in place because of the difficulty of assessing the allegiances of the various rebel groups in Syria’s continuing war — what Barbara Strack, chief of the Refugee Affairs Division at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, describes as ‘‘the myriad actors and dynamic nature of the conflict.’’

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Refugees from Myanmar accepted for resettlement in the USA wait for their flight at Bangkok’s Suvarnabumhi airport. (File Photo) © Thierry Falise / IOM

Economists on the Refugee Path

Today’s global refugee crisis recalls the period immediately after World War II. By one contemporary estimate, there were more than 40 million refugees in Europe alone. These “displaced persons,” as they were called at the time, were forced to flee their homes because of violence, forced relocation, persecution, and destruction of property and infrastructure.

The dire postwar situation led to the creation in 1950 of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which was expected to serve only a temporary mandate, protecting displaced people for three years. But the problem never went away. On the contrary, the UNHCR is not only still with us; it is sounding an alarm, writes 2013 Nobel Laureate and Professor of Economics at Yale University Robert J. Shiller in Project Syndicate.

In its 2015 mid-year report, the agency put the number of “forcibly displaced” people worldwide at 59.5 million at the end of 2014, including 19.5 million internationally displaced, which they define as true refugees. Some countries – Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Colombia, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Ukraine – each accounted for more than a half-million forcibly displaced people at the end of 2014. The report noted that the total number had certainly grown substantially since.

While highlighting the scale of the problem and the inadequacy of UNHCR’s budget to meet their basic protection needs, or even cover essentials like food and shelter, Schiller notes that the report underscores the incompleteness of our understanding of the refugee problem and the need for more research on what can and should be done for refugees in the long term.

His response, as President of the American Economic Association (AEA) for 2016, was to organize a session at the AEA annual meeting earlier this month entitled Sixty Million Refugees. Distinguished scholars on migration were asked  to describe the dimensions of the refugee problem in economic terms, and to propose some sensible policies to address it.

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Migration in the News


  • Kuwait News Agency reported that IOM DG William Lacy Swing has hailed the international humanitarian role played by Kuwait’s Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah in raising funds to tackle the refugee crisis in the Middle East.

  • BBC World Service Report interviewed IOM DG Swing on the migration crisis. He noted that most migration policies, not just in Europe, are very dated and were formulated after World War Two.

  • CNN reported that an online petition has been launched to nominate residents of the Greek islands for the Nobel Peace Prize for rescuing, feeding and sheltering hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants.

  • Wall Street Journal reported that some migrants in Germany, disenchanted with poor job prospects and unsettled by cultural differences, are returning home.

  • The Lancet noted in an editorial that many international migrants who have relocated either by choice or as refugees have inadequate access to health care.

  • Guardian reported that at least 45 people died after two wooden boats sank in the eastern Aegean off the islands of Kalymnos and Farmakonisi.

  • Dow Jones News reported that European governments are weighing options that could temporarily seal off Greece from the border-free Schengen area and prolong border controls for up to two years, in reaction to the migration crisis.

  • RT reported Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner’s comments that Greece is not fulfilling its EU obligations to secure the bloc’s external borders and might be excluded from the Schengen zone.

  • Sputnik reported that Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban has announced that the country is now shut to transiting migrants.

  • International Business Times reported that Doctors of the World UK will deploy doctors on board ferries carrying newly-arrived refugees and migrants from the island of Lesbos to Athens through March 31st.

  • Xinhua reported that an increased perception of insecurity amid Islamist terror attacks across the world has led Italy’s government to postpone a planned hearing on decriminalization of illegal immigration.

  • Poynter reported on why journalists should verify figures from the UN and NGOs that use unconfirmed and anonymous data collection methods.

Trending on the Internet


  • BBC reported that migrants arriving in Finland are being offered classes on Finnish values and how to behave towards women.

  • Times of India reported that between 2010 - 2015, India overtook Russia as the country with the world’s largest diaspora, according to UNDESA.

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