The Reality of Refugee Resettlement
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well.
– “Home” by Warsan Shire
I have to remind myself that they just don’t know.
When people ask if there are communities in the city that abide by sharia law, when they ask how much of their taxes are going towards giving refugees free stuff, or when they shout that we don’t know who we’re letting into the country – “We’re just an open door to extremists!” – I have to remind myself that they just don’t know.
They talk of extremists crossing borders and I look around, wondering where they are. Last year, eighty-five thousand refugees were resettled in the United States and not one attack occurred. In fact, three million refugees have been resettled in the United States since 1980, and not one terrorist attack has been perpetrated by a refugee. They say we don’t vet refugees, and I try and figure out why it took my coworker six years to get a visa into the country. They say that refugees don’t pay taxes and I am confused why the resettlement agency I work for refers clients to workshops on filing taxes every year. They say that refugees are draining welfare programs, but I see almost all of our clients working within three months of arriving in the country.
I have to remind myself that they have not seen the faces of a Congolese family stepping off a plane after days of travel, leaving so much behind – only a pillowcase of belongings on hand – and yet feeling safe for the first time in years. They have not been hugged by a Syrian woman, letting go of her one suitcase and the hand of her child, fresh off the plane and not knowing what difficulties continue to lie ahead, saying thank you. They have not heard the stories of Sudanese families waiting fifteen years in a refugee camp without access to education or employment, or of children lost to bombs or drowning. They have not met Iraqi women who lost fathers, husbands, and brothers because they refused to fight on behalf of extremism. They have not met the Somali women, pregnant or with only half of their children, alone in this new place because their husbands and their other children are still in a refugee camp. They have not seen the Syrian father limping from a permanent disability because he shielded his youngest daughter from a bomb that was dropped on their home.
If you have felt doubt about the legitimacy of the refugee resettlement process, I want to reassure you. I want to let you know that I think it’s not fair that you have not been told how the system works, that you have not had leaders able to step-up and reassure you because it is easier to scare you.
So what I’d like to do is lay out the process for you. It will get a bit in-the-weeds, but if you have come this far then I think you are willing to go the distance. Situations can vary depending on the region that a person has fled from and fled to, but the security screenings done by the United States do not vary. Due to the thoroughness of the process, families can be split – if a woman has a child three years into the screening process, her child will not be included on her case unless she is willing to start the process all over again – and Iraqis who served the US Army have been killed while waiting to be approved.
This is not a vetting process based on compassion. It is a strict, slow, and detailed process. The smallest change to a refugee’s story or family information is cause for a re-do of security steps already taken. The smallest doubt will disqualify you.
When a person flees their country (because of violence or threat of violence) into another country, they seek out the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or a nearby embassy to apply for refugee status. They have to prove to the UNHCR that they are a refugee as defined by international law. This involves interviews that will require detailing their experience and reasons for fleeing, which can mean a reliving of trauma. They have to prove that they have experienced violence or were threatened while waiting on background checks to be run by agencies within the United Nations. Typically, in the meantime, the prospective refugee will remain in a camp where they are dependent upon donated food and makeshift shelters.
There are 65 million people that have been displaced by violence and out of that, 21 million are registered as refugees.
If given refugee status, the UNHCR will determine if the case is eligible for resettlement in another country or for integration into the client’s country of asylum (this is the country the refugee fled to). The UNHCR would then refer that person to another government agency depending on what country the United Nations decides to send the refugee to. This is an important thing to note. People believe that refugees are flocking to the United States with extremists hiding among them. This is simply not true. When a refugee applies for resettlement they do not get to request the country. They must go wherever the UN decides to send them, and since only 0.5% of refugees are approved for resettlement, you are MUCH more likely to be left in a camp than given a chance at resettlement.
The eligibility for resettlement in the United States prioritizes women, children, and families. They also allow for refugees with disabilities or severe (but non-contagious) health issues to be referred to the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Victims of anti-LGBTQ violence or human trafficking are also prioritized.
However, if you are lucky enough to be considered for resettlement you must begin a whole new process of security checks. For the United States, the State Department – via the Bureau of Populations, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) – and the Department of Homeland Security oversee this process. They run background checks through databases of at least five different United States security agencies, including fingerprint-based databases. Interviewers are trained for five weeks on the questions to ask and “red flags” to look for based on what region they are conducting interviews in. If an interviewer will be working with Syrian clients, they go through additional training. If there is ever ANY level of doubt about a person, they are simply denied the visa. If approved after the interviewing and security clearances, the refugee will undergo a health screening. The typical timeline for all of this vetting is about a 18-24 month process, on average. I know of many people who waited much longer.
If a refugee has won this lottery chance to be resettled – as one of the 0.5% – they (and receiving non-profits in the United States) are alerted to their resettlement about two weeks before departure. In that period of time, they go through a brief English class and Cultural Orientation and are placed on a plane – usually for the first time – and are told someone will be at the airport to greet them.
In the United States, there are nine national resettlement non-profits that meet on a weekly basis to decide which approved refugees to accept and where to send them. Last year, during the 2016 fiscal year, the United States resettled almost 85,000 refugees of the 21 million registered around the world. They came primarily from Burma/Myanmar, Bhutan, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria. Refugees come from many other places as well, but the larger numbers tend to be from these countries.
Upon arrival, refugees are given a caseworker for their first four to six months to assist with integration. They are placed in English classes, given a small amount of cash assistance for the first four to six months, and are given support to find employment. They are restarting their lives completely. Once employed, they will start paying back the cost of their flights to the United States that were given to them on a loan. Then after a year they will apply for residency and receive their green card. After five years, they are eligible for citizenship.
So, what does that mean with the potential executive order that is apparently in the works? As of my writing this, a draft of the order has been released. The main points are: freeze resettlement for 120 days while they determine the strength of vetting and make adjustments, reject applicants from Muslim majority countries (Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Syria, and Sudan), add an additional interview session that is focused on refugees’ ideologies in order to pick out and resettle Christians, set the ceiling at 50,000 refugees for the fiscal year of 2017, and refuse visas to Syrians indefinitely.
For many years the United States has been the leader in resettlement, accepting the most refugee cases. With this cut and these restrictions we will no longer be the country to look to as an example. Other countries will, and have already, rise above and exceed us in humanitarian response.
With the freeze, that means any refugees who were accepted for resettlement in the coming months will obviously be delayed, but could also be sent back to the UNHCR to restart the process. Families who have been waiting years for approval may have been told last week that they would be going to America at the beginning of February, but now must be approached and told that they will no longer be going and may need to start over with the UNHCR again – a process that likely already took them three to seven years to get through.
I won’t tell you how to feel about this. I imagine at times my personal emotions and personal policy leanings flared up, but I ultimately wanted to equip you with the reality of this work and the effects that the rumored executive order could have. People displaced by violence are such a vulnerable community and it’s wrong for us to step back in fear. Where is your backbone, America?
Perfect love casts out fear. Perfect love doesn’t settle for easy answers, it pursues justice no matter how messy or scary it may be. Perfect love is not satisfied with shallow policies – it does the hard work. It goes uncelebrated and often appears as foolishness to the world. It is not impressed by passionate political speeches founded on lies and generalities. It looks closer and acts on wisdom. It looks at the reality and fights, even though the powerful voices continue to push back. We must be careful that we don’t hold our hands too tightly around our concern for security, when we do so without looking close at what we fear. You are not keeping out the extremists or the oppressors. You are keeping out the people who are running away from the extremists and oppressors. You are taking away what little hope there is for people whose lives have been destroyed before their very eyes because you have not dared to look at the destruction or the complexity of darkness in this world. This is not an issue of political leanings. It’s not even an issue of being compassionate. This is an issue of millions of people who are being victimized, neglected, and exploited on all sides, and simply because of where they were born while our country shies away from looking closely at what it fears, refusing to do the hard work of listening, understanding, and responding wisely. Be courageous. Do not be deceived.
So now I will challenge you.
I will challenge you, if you live in a city of resettlement, to assist with an airport pick-up of a newly arriving family. When the children, perhaps from Central Africa, Southeast Asia, or the Middle East, approach you wide-eyed and confused and their parents shake your hands and kiss your cheeks vigorously while saying “thank you” – or perhaps they’ll just sleepily follow you to your car, clearly exhausted – tell me that we’re wrong to allow refugees a second chance at a normal, safe life. When you watch the children cling to and cry over a teddy bear you have given them as a welcome gift, tell me how your tax money is wasted. When a father arrives, falling to his knees and singing with joy because after four years of separation he is finally able to be with his wife and child – a child that was born in the United States while he had been left in an African refugee camp – tell me that our vetting isn’t strong enough.
Because now you know.