Amid deteriorating conditions in Syria, the Obama administration will, for the first time, allow thousands of new Syrian refugees to settle permanently in the United States.
The decision represents a major policy shift by the White House, reports Foreign Policy magazine's The Cable blog.
"Referrals will come within the next four months," Kelly Clements, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration, told The Cable. "We will need to interview people and perform security and medical checks."
While only 2,000 refugees will be admitted, the number represents a significant increase from the 90 or so Syrian refugees who have been permanently admitted to the United States in the last two years, The Cable reports.
The refugees, mostly women and children, will be screened for terrorist ties — and that process could take a year or more to complete.
Two million people have fled Syria since the civil war began more than two years ago — flooding into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and other nations, according to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
The U.N. office will be making referrals to the State Department under the new program, The Cable reports.
Previous efforts by the Department of Homeland Security have given temporary protected status to Syrians already in the United States, The Cable reports.
Under the new program, qualifying refugees include only the most vulnerable individuals — likely women and children — who were "exposed to everything from torture to gender-based violence to serious medical conditions" and have no intention of returning to Syria, Clements said.
Despite their vulnerable condition, even the youngest of children will be completely screened to ensure that they do not pose a national security threat, The Cable reports.
It's not that the State Department is worried about infants enlisting in al-Qaida. The concern is that terrorist relatives can more easily enter the United States, once they have relatives here, according to The Cable.
"Refugees are subject to an intensive security screening process involving federal intelligence, law enforcement, defense, and homeland security agencies," a State Department official told The Cable. "The U.S. government makes every possible effort to uphold and enhance the security screening aspects of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.
"Refugees are among the most carefully screened of individuals traveling to the United States," the official said.
Aid workers welcomed the decision.
"It's a welcome move by the U.S., but they also need to do more to help the countries supporting refugees and support their infrastructure," Noah Gottschalk, Oxfam America's senior humanitarian policy adviser, told The Cable.
"We're very proud of the fact that the U.S. judges applicants on need and seek out the most needy cases," Erol Kekic, director of immigration at the Church World Service, told The Cable.
It is not yet clear how Congress will respond to the increased acceptance of the Syrian refugees. Though the State Department's refugee admission program is authorized by a presidential determination, it does involve consultation with Congress, The Cable reports.
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