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With refugee vetting in US, ISIL infiltration risk ‘overblown’

Analysis: Security threat from resettlement plan is largely exaggerated, reflects misconceptions of how vetting works

Since President Barack Obama announced his plan to accept 10,000 vetted Syrian refugees into the country, critics have rehashed a perennial anti-resettlement argument: that enemies of the United States will exploit American hospitality to sneak in operatives and attack the country from within.

GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson aired that line over the weekend, calling Obama’s plan “a splendid opportunity for the global jihadists to infiltrate those numbers with members of their own organization,” suggesting that groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and Al-Qaeda had plans to sneak “clean skin,” or undercover, members onto U.S. soil. Carson is hardly alone; in January, a group of Republican lawmakers warned any such program could turn into a “federally funded jihadi pipeline” and urged Obama to keep refugees out.

That fear, which many would dismiss as alarmist, is a major reason why the U.S. has until now resettled such a miniscule share of those fleeing Syria — just over 1,600 — of the over 4 million refugees who have fled their country’s war. To those like Carson, incidents like the Boston Marathon bombings, which were carried out by a pair of Chechen immigrant brothers, are evidence that the U.S. security vetting apparatus is ill-prepared to handle what Obama is planning.

“How does it, you know, let people like the Tsarnaev brothers in here?” Carson asked during an ABC interview Sunday.

The actual risk that ISIL or Al-Qaeda is actively seeking to sneak operatives into the U.S. is not known and to some extent cannot be disproven. But refugee advocates say hawkish fears like Carson’s also stem from a number of misconceptions about how the resettlement process works.

Separate the example of the Tsarnaevs, who had no known ties to banned groups when they were vetted 11 years before their attack, most experts say Washington’s intensive, post-9/11 security vetting regimen is more than capable of mitigating the security risks inherent in taking in people from chaotic and murky conflicts like Syria’s.

“The short answer is that the issue is overblown,” said Daryl Grisgraber, senior advocate for Refugees International. “The detailed answer is that the U.S. has been resettling refugees for over 50 years now, and ever since 9/11, there’s been an even more rigorous vetting process. It is slow and thorough, and, frankly, for the refugees, it can be quite painful.”

In order to qualify for resettlement in the U.S., refugees must first be registered and referred by the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR. The U.N. collects biographic and even biometric data — for the Syrian crisis, refugees have been iris-scanned — to make sure applicants’ stories check out, and that they are not pretending to be someone they’re not.

“People might say, ‘I was here during a barrel bombing or a gas attack on this date,’ so we have look to see if it was reported. If there are question marks, we can’t clear them,” said Larry Yungk, a senior protection officer with the UNHCR in Washington, D.C.

Only the best cases are referred to the U.S., which has a reputation for having one of the most thorough vetting regimens of any country, Yungk said. The Department of Homeland Security then conducts its own security checks as well as individual interviews with each family member, which can last several hours. If there is any doubt about someone’s background — for instance, if family members contradict details of each other’s stories — “it’s a red light,” Yungk said.

As far as dangerous individuals making it through, Yungk said it was important to look at the profile of who is being resettled. The pool of applicants is drawn mainly from U.N. refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where half of residents are children and another a quarter are women. Because the resettlement process takes so long, about two years on average, those at the top of the list right now will have been outside of Syria for several years now — many before ISIL and Al-Qaeda even had influence in the country — and will have kept in constant contact with the U.N. the entire time.

On top of that, the U.N. prioritizes the tiny of fraction of applicants deemed most at-risk, which include people with medical issues, torture survivors, single woman-headed households or LGBT refugees, Yungk explained, so it isn't as if the U.S. will be plucking hardened rebel fighters straight from the battlefield.

Still, no one denies that security risks exist. After all, the fears many express are not about a veritable army of ISIL recruits finding their way into the country, but rather of a few “lone wolves” either slipping through the cracks or becoming radicalized once inside the country — like the Tsarnaev brothers or Kouachi brothers, the Charlie Hebdo attackers in France.

“We have got a few cases in the U.S. of populations within refugees supporting terrorist groups,” said Juan Zarate, deputy national security adviser, in an interview with PBS this week. “Not a lot, but the risk of just one or two is considered high for the intelligence community.”

Some U.S. officials also acknowledge that the Syrian crisis has challenged existing resettlement protocols. Unlike in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. military was present on the ground, American military involvement in Syria has been limited primarily to airstrikes from on high. As a result, “You don’t have a lot of information,” Zarate said. “And so we’re grasping in the dark to determine what the risk is of bringing some of these people to the U.S.” That has been part of the reason for Washington's apparently delayed response to the crisis, he added.

But resettlement experts point out that the U.S. has a long history of resettling refugees — outside the Syrian crisis, it has resettled a greater number than any country in the world in real numbers — and that the 10,000 Obama has promised are well within the DHS' capabilities.

James Milner, an expert on refugee policy at Carleton University in Canada, noted that a similar debate was prevalent as the U.S resettled over one million people from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the wake of the Vietnam War. Then, the fear was communist infiltration, but it was never realized. “So this is a much smaller group of people than we’ve dealt with in the past, and that was before all the additional security measures that existed in the aftermath of 9/11,” Milner said.

In fact, the security challenges facing the U.S. plan pale in comparison to the crisis in Europe, where hundreds of thousands of refugees are coming ashore and declaring asylum en masse. Not only are there concerns about adequately vetting those refugees, but integrating them into society — something many European nations have traditionally struggled to do — could pose a steeper challenge in the long term. Even so, Germany expects to take in 800,000 refugees this year, underlining the relatively small commitment U.S. politicians are wrangling over.

Besides, refugee advocates say that rhetoric like Carson's has not been paired with constructive suggestions. Grisgraber, of Refugees International, said critics who have specific concerns about the vetting procedure are welcome to air them to DHS. “But in the meantime, you can’t just say the security risks are too great to honor our commitment to protecting vulnerable people.”

Others argue that not taking anyone in may pose its own security risks. “The unknowable nature of the threat … makes it susceptible to exaggeration and exploitation,” argued the Soufan Group, an intelligence consultancy, in a new briefing. “That a few terrorists may be hidden among hundreds of thousands of refugees is perceived as a greater threat than the destabilizing consequences of a massive humanitarian crisis — though in reality, the latter threat is much greater.”

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