A version of this article originally appeared in the Public Justice Review, a publication by the Center for Public Justice.
Once I had a job where I asked people to tell me, in great detail, about the most traumatic experiences of their life. In 2005, I was an intern with the United Nations in Kakuma refugee camp located in northwestern Kenya, and my role was to screen individuals for refugee resettlement. The majority of my caseload were people from the Oromo ethnic group who, despite being the majority in their home country of Ethiopia, experienced systematic oppression by the ruling government. Many of the people I interviewed were torture survivors, student protesters, and victims of sexual violence.
Three times a day I sat in a small, cell-like room, and asked individuals, through the assistance of a translator, why they left Ethiopia. In one of my first interviews, I asked a man in his 60s about why he had left Ethiopia a decade earlier. He was not a supporter of the Oromo Liberation Front or an activist; rather, he had left his home because of a drought that made it impossible for him to grow food. At the end of the interview, my hands trembling, I checked “no” on the form I was completing - this man was an economic migrant, not a refugee. He had not crossed an international border due to fear of persecution for his race, religion, ethnicity, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. He was not eligible for resettlement.
More often, however, I checked “yes” with confidence - the individual I interviewed clearly met the definition of a refugee. Their story was consistent; it matched with the timeline of events in Ethiopia. Even so, I knew that the refugee may not make it through the rigorous process to follow. Someone would pore over the interview I transcribed and use it to cross-check future interviews, paying careful attention to any discrepancies.
This job of sorting through vulnerable people, of sifting through millions of displaced persons worldwide to select those most deserving of resettlement, is not easy or simple. Many international and US federal agencies are involved, it often takes two years or longer to complete start to finish, and the vetting process is, indeed, “extreme.” And resettlement is only granted to a precious few.
As Christians, we are exhorted to care for the vulnerable and the stranger. Those who funnel through the refugee resettlement program should, therefore, be of special concern to followers of Jesus. Refugees clearly fall into the category of “the least of these;” they are humans made in God’s image who have been subject to the worst of what humanity has to offer. They - like the infant Jesus carried by his parents across an international border - are searching for safety from those who would hurt them.
Refugees become refugees for many complex reasons, but they all share one thing: they leave home because their lives are in danger. The enormous scale of the current global refugee crisis – over 65 million displaced people, 21.3 million of whom are refugees and half of whom are children under the age of 18 - is mostly due to wars or unrest in places like Syria, South Sudan, and Somalia. But not all refugees come from countries with massive civil wars; some refugees are social elites or journalists targeted by an authoritative political regime in an otherwise stable country, others are illiterate farmers who are conscripted to act as porters by fringe militias. Whatever the cause for displacement, refugees are people with no other option but to leave home in search of security.
Many refugees end up in camps in neighboring countries where conditions are grim. The camps are often insecure, food rations are limited, and educational or vocational opportunities are few. Other refugees live in urban centers, often in the shadows of society, where they have limited freedoms of movement or employment. Refugees fleeing violence in Africa and the Middle East often continue their journey, trying to make it to Europe where greater supports are available and they have the hope of finding a permanent, secure home. They might pay smugglers for a spot on a migrant boat, making a harrowing crossing from Libya to Italy. Those who make it across are transported from emergency reception centers to transition centers where they make pleas for asylum, though many are denied.
What are the solutions to the global refugee crisis? According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which was established shortly before the 1951 refugee convention, the problem of refugee status can be solved with one of three durable solutions. The first solution, and the most ideal in many cases, is for the refugees to voluntarily return home to their country once it is safe to do so. The majority of refugees eventually go back, and they often play a vital role in rebuilding their home country after war. But this solution is becoming less of an option as protracted conflicts make conditions unsafe for refugees to return home for decades or longer.
The second solution is local integration, which means that the refugee is absorbed into the host country, ideally by receiving citizenship and all the rights therein, such as freedom to work, freedom of movement, and freedom to own property. This solution is often unpopular with host countries because it places the responsibility on these nations to integrate large numbers of displaced people - many of whom are poor, traumatized, and ethnically dissimilar to their population and speak different languages. In a UNHCR report from 2015, the ten countries hosting the highest numbers of refugees were in developing regions, five of which were in sub-Saharan Africa. These nations are often the least equipped financially to offer integration as a viable option.
The third solution, and the one least available to refugees, is resettlement to a third country, such as the United States, Australia, or Canada. Countries with resettlement programs voluntarily accept refugees and devote resources to help them integrate into society. The refugee resettlement programs show a commitment from countries with functioning political communities to finding solutions for those who are stateless and without other options.
But less than one percent of the world’s refugees are given this option, while the remaining 99 percent wait in refugee camps or urban centers for another solution. To be eligible for resettlement, an individual must first receive official refugee status, meeting the UN’s definition of a refugee, which means they did not leave their country for other reasons, such as economic insecurity. The man I interviewed who left Ethiopia because of a drought, for example, was ineligible from the get-go.
Resettlement: A Vulnerability Linked Process
With 21.3 million refugees globally, who gets to decide which 0.6 percent of individuals - a little over 107,000 in 2015 - get resettled? The aim is to resettle those in greatest need and the following categories are used to identify those who are most vulnerable:
- those who need physical or legal protection within the secondary migration country
- survivors of torture
- those with life-threatening medical needs, particularly if treatment is currently unavailable
- girls or women at risk
- children or adolescents at risk
- families awaiting reunification
- those who lack of a foreseeable alternative durable solution
The resettlement criteria aligns, in some measure, to larger biblical principles of upholding justice by protecting the most vulnerable. Understanding the ways in which refugees are selected for resettlement should compel Christians to support this humanitarian program that seeks to help those who need it most.
Individual refugees who are most at risk, and therefore would benefit the most from this humanitarian program, are often referred to UNCHR by social workers or NGO employees in the refugee camps. Some refugees directly appeal to UNHCR for resettlement. The resettlement countries, places like the United States, Canada, and Sweden, also set criteria and identify groups of special humanitarian concern to their country. The United States resettlement program includes groups such as Iraqis associated with the United States military, Iranian religious minorities, and Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. In some countries, refugee registration, referrals for resettlement, and residency are determined by the host government instead of UNHCR. This is the case in Turkey, who hosts nearly 3 million Syrian refugees.
Gilbert Peters, a former International Office of Migration (IOM) officer in Kakuma refugee camp, wrote me: “The refugees who make it through to resettlement are most [often] single-headed families, victims of violence, disabled and medical cases, people at risk in the country of asylum and marginalized or minority groups… [and] resettlement does not even take a quarter of the deserving cases.”
The US Refugee Resettlement Vetting Process
Vetting of refugees seeking resettlement in the United States has been a hot topic in the current administration, as it was in the previous administration. The US Refugee Admission Program is a joint effort by many agencies who work together to screen refugees, including the Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, and Department of Health and Human Services, among others. These agencies partner with UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) overseas and conduct multiple checks for US national security purposes (which are detailed below).
Meeting with an UNHCR officer is often the first step in the rigorous refugee vetting process. UNHCR, or in some cases the host country’s government, determines refugee status, assesses whether a refugee is particularly vulnerable, and evaluates if there are any reasons the person should be excluded for consideration for resettlement.
Dalia Malek, former UNHCR Resettlement Expert in Turkey, said: “People are weeded out by UNHCR for reasons like [being perpetrators of violence or members of a terrorist organization] before the process with a resettlement country like the United States is even initiated, and this is informed by criteria requested by resettlement countries. The exact profiles that are weeded out are considered confidential by resettlement countries and UNHCR, but it is worth emphasizing that there is a high level of scrutiny at the UNHCR level.”
If a refugee passes these steps, UNHCR or the host government will then refer that individual to various foreign governments who accept refugees for resettlement. Those referred to the United States’ refugee program undergo an interview with staff from Refugee Support Centers (RSC), which are funded by the US government. RSC staff are responsible for collecting basic information from the refugee, which is later verified through an in-depth interview with a United States Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer who is trained in fraud detection, grounds of inadmissibility, and refugee law.
Once a refugee is determined to be eligible for resettlement by USCIS, they undergo a series of multi-agency security clearances and background checks using biographic data, including fingerprints. This data is run through databases and terrorist watch lists maintained by groups such as the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center, and Department of Defense. Refugees from Syria undergo an enhanced process at this stage, which includes iris scans and additional review through the Security Advisory Opinion process. Refugees undergo the most security checks and scrutiny of any group traveling to the United States.
Refugees who clear this arduous process receive a security clearance to travel to the United States; however, this clearance is only eligible for a limited amount of time. Those who are caught up in the 90-day refugee resettlement ban by the current political administration may have to repeat steps of the vetting process, which can mean significant delays. For those who are waiting for life-saving medical treatment, these additional postponements can be deadly.
Before traveling to the United States, refugees must also undergo medical exams and attend cultural orientation courses. They often first travel to transit centers where they receive final medical treatments for common contagious diseases (i.e. parasites). A final multi-agency security check is performed before the refugee travels to the United States clutching a plastic IOM bag, which contains their basic paperwork. Once they arrive at the airport, a final security check is performed, and staff from the resettlement agency and/or family members who are already in the United States receive them there.
A Christian Response
Though this vetting process is extensive, thorough, and rigorous, a recent article in Religion News Services suggests that most Christians in America support the president’s executive order on refugees. Somehow, the misinformation about refugees and the fear that our president has instilled in many by blaming “faulty refugee vetting” for bringing “generations of terrorism” into the United States has convinced the majority of Christ followers to close our doors to refugees. For those of us who have been intimately involved in refugee processing, it is infuriating to hear this careful program being misconstrued as allowing terrorists into our country versus providing safety and security to the world’s most vulnerable people.
Despite this trend, I find encouragement by the many Christians who are pushing back against the fear and misinformation, which is absolutely vital to the larger national conversation and attitudes toward refugees. Christians have often been on the forefront of welcoming refugees. The biblical principles of upholding human dignity, seeking justice for the most vulnerable, and welcoming the stranger have made care for refugees a natural response for many.
Many refugee resettlement agencies in the United States are faith-based, and they need faithful Christians to join them in their work. In Kakuma refugee camp, I saw the life-saving work of the Lutheran World Federation and Don Bosco Missions. During graduate school in Egypt, I joined a youth ministry team to refugees at All Saints Cathedral in Cairo and saw Christians on the frontlines of legal advocacy and literacy training.
Christians are often the hands and feet of welcome in countries hosting refugees and in places of resettlement. My hope is that followers of Jesus will act swiftly to stem the moral panic by educating others about the extensive refugee vetting process. When so many lives hang in the balance, my hope and prayer is that Christians will heed God’s call to serve those in desperate need of safety.
-Stina Kielsmeier-Cook has a graduate degree in Forced Migration and Refugee Studies from the American University in Cairo and has worked with refugees for over a decade. She is a writer and editor from Minneapolis, MN who blogs at www.stinakc.com and tweets @stina_kc. Photo courtesy of European Commission DG ECHO.