Refugees fleeing the ongoing conflict in Syria have been arriving in the U.S. in small numbers for some time, but the issue has only recently gained widespread attention. Much of this attention focuses on alleged threats to U.S. national security, with elected leaders, presidential candidates, and others calling for additional screening of refugees before they may enter U.S. territory. Federal immigration law already requires prospective refugees to undergo extensive background screening, which only begins after they receive formal “refugee” status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The screening process, which is conducted by the U.S. Department of State (DOS), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and other agencies, can take two years or more to complete.
Background of the Refugee Crisis
The crisis in Syria began in early 2011, with a series of protests against the Syrian government. This eventually led to a civil war between the government and rebel forces seeking to remove the country’s president. The group calling itself the Islamic State (IS) also got involved in the conflict. It now controls large areas of eastern Syria, while the rest of the country is divided between the government and other forces. Estimates of the total death toll exceed 250,000 people. As of December 2015, the UNHCR states that more than 4.3 million have been driven from their homes.
The total number of Syrian refugees that may be admitted to the U.S. during the current fiscal year is set at 10,000, approximately 0.2 percent of the total number of refugees from this conflict. About 2,200 have reportedly already been admitted. By comparison, the UNHCR reports that Turkey currently has over 2.2 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon more than 1 million, and Jordan more than 600,000. European nations have reportedly received more than 800,000 asylum applications from Syrian refugees.