Trump’s first step to defeating ISIS, blocking vulnerable refugees?

This week, President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems win from coast to coast Falwell after Gillespie loss: 'DC should annex' Northern Virginia Dems see gains in Virginia's House of Delegates MORE signed an executive order blocking refugee resettlement to the United States until a thorough evaluation of the security screening process is performed. The United States Refugee Resettlement program, a longstanding program that promotes peace and opportunity for vulnerable populations, has been challenged by competing national security priorities.

Due to increased terrorist activities around the world, mitigating the threat of an ISIS attack has become the main security priority of this administration. The issue facing policy makers is how that threat will evolve. The new administration has characterized the incoming Syrian refugees as the ISIS vehicle for an attack. However, the threat of an ISIS infiltrator entering the United States as a refugee is marginal at best when compared to the greater likelihood of a lone-wolf attack.

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Amidst the political narrative surrounding the risk of Syrian refugees, the call to halt refugee resettlement to the United States has largely remained at the center of political conversations. Under Trump’s executive order, this number will be decrease the yearly resettlement number to 50,000.

The preeminent justification for these changes is a lack of faith in our agencies’ ability to properly vet refugees, specifically those from Muslim-majority countries. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered a state withdrawal from the federal resettlement program. Meanwhile, Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceSean Spicer: After Trump's year 1, GOP poised to dominate again in 2018 Cornyn: Senate GOP tax plan to be released Thursday Pence to visit site of Texas church shooting on Wednesday MORE’s order to Indiana state agencies to withhold federal funding for resettlement was overturned by a state judge in 2016 following a lawsuit. The decision in Exodus Refugee International v. Pence called Pence’s threats of ISIS infiltrating Syrian refugee populations “nightmare speculation.”

The United States Refugee Resettlement Program fosters strategic relationships with refugee communities, promotes peace with countries housing refugees, and rescues refugees from vulnerable environments, and lessens the number of refugees exposed to soft factors of radicalization. 

President Obama’s plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees from Jordan came at a moment when the socioeconomic conditions in Jordan were plummeting due to the protracted crises in Syria and Iraq. Restricting Syrian refugee resettlement to the United States out of concern for limited vetting capabilities fails to account for two major factors in calculating the risk of infiltration: the refugees’ present country of refuge and the security vetting process for refugees entering the country of refuge. These two factors require a deeper understanding of the comprehensive security screening of each Syrian refugee from the moment of displacement to resettlement. I offer Jordan as a case study.

In early 2016, the Jordanian Syrian Refugee Assistance Directorate (SRAD), the intelligence agency managing the Syrian refugee crisis, restricted daily entrance to only a small number of refugees per day. Despite a bottleneck of 25,000 refugees fleeing fresh airstrikes in Aleppo and barrel bomb attacks in Dara’a at the start of the new year, SRAD carefully interviewed and screened every refugee that would be transferred to a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) registration.

This screening was only the first of several intense screenings carried out by Jordanian intelligence and the UNHCR before admittance to a refugee camp. These security screenings often include a comprehensive background check on refugees extending from their previous careers to recent affiliations in areas of displacement (especially for those originating from areas controlled by non-state actors). It was not uncommon for Jordanian authorities to refuse entrance to refugees who posed a security threat. Additionally, factors unrelated to the vetting process play a major role in identifying potential infiltrators in refugee communities. Syrians, particularly those fleeing ISIS-held areas, are more likely to identify and report potential infiltrators in their own communities.

The limitations of the U.S. screening process, though not substantial, can be solved with increased intelligence-sharing and collaboration between the U.S. intelligence community and strategic allies in the region. With greater access to information, there is an increased chance of catching potential infiltrators early in the process. From a security framework, it ensures that refugees who are referred for resettlement by UNHCR to U.S. officials have already undergone a U.S.-approved security screening before the first round of resettlement interviews.

From a humanitarian framework, this establishes a more efficient, transparent refugee screening process system that enables the humanitarian responders to identify refugees with protection needs early and respond effectively. In the long-term, abandoning Syrian refugees and the nation’s hosting them will create greater risks of radicalization and a buildup of long-term resentment towards the United States.

Jesse Marks is a 2017 Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow in D.C. and former David L. Boren Scholar to Jordan where he interned with United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Jordan and the Jordan Center for Strategic Studies.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.