Obama pledge to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees far behind schedule

EU, Turkey reach deal on plan for handling refugees
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Story highlights

  • Only about 1,300 Syrian refugees -- or some 13% -- have been admitted into the U.S.
  • On Wednesday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a plea to accept more Syrian refugees

Washington (CNN)Six months in, President Barack Obama's goal of resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States by the end of the fiscal year is in serious jeopardy.

Speaking at an Easter prayer breakfast Wednesday, Obama reiterated his concern about the plight of displaced people, praising Pope Francis for washing the feet of refugees, "a powerful reminder of our obligations if, in fact, we're not afraid, and if, in fact, we hope, and if, in fact, we believe."
    But as the flow of refugees from the Syrian civil war continues to grow, seemingly unabated, the realities of bureaucratic red tape, coupled with fears of terrorism, fiery campaign rhetoric and attempts by Congress to obstruct the process, mean the United States is way behind in meeting the President's goal by October 1.
    Last September, in response to the emerging migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East, Obama ordered his administration to dramatically "scale up" the number of Syrian refugees welcomed into the United States by the end of the fiscal year, setting a target of 10,000.
    But halfway through the year, only about 1,300 Syrian refugees -- or some 13% -- have been admitted.
    On Wednesday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a plea to the international community to accept more Syrian refugees.
    "Today, they are refugees," he said. "Tomorrow, they can be students and professors, scientists and researchers, workers and caregivers."
    The United Nations is undertaking an effort to resettle 480,000 Syrian refugees -- 10% of those now living in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan -- in the coming years. They currently have pledges for 178,000. Altogether, there are almost 5 million Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations, a situation U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi has called "the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time."
    The State Department and other agencies involved in vetting Syrian refugees say, however, that they are taking steps to speed up the process.
    These include creating a "new pathway" for Syrians with relatives in the United States, though the State Department has not elaborated on what that pathway would look like. They are also increasing staff at key locations in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, according to a State Department official.
    Additionally, the State Department announced on Wednesday it would be committing another $10 million to the UNHCR to help with refugee resettlement.
    "We expect Syrian refugee arrivals to the U.S. to increase steadily throughout the fiscal year," the official said, "ultimately culminating in the admission of at least 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the fiscal year."
    But so far, publicly available admissions data suggests the opposite. CNN's analysis shows that the rate of admissions for Syrian refugees has decreased in four out of the last six months.
    The delays are largely a function of the process, according to State Department officials and refugee advocates.
    "The system is not designed to move too fast," State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday. "Refugees from Syria are given the highest scrutiny of any other type of refugee."
    It currently takes an average of 18 to 24 months for refugees to be fully vetted for resettlement, and that's only after the United Nations High Commission for Refugees -- the international body responsible for coordinating international resettlement efforts -- refers them to the U.S. government.
    The UNHCR began referring Syrian refugees for resettlement in the U.S. in significant numbers in 2014.To date, it has referred 38,500 Syrians to U.S. authorities, with nearly half of those referred in the last six months.
    "The speed at which people are arriving is a function of the process," said Anna Greene, director of policy and advocacy for U.S. programs at the International Rescue Committee, a leading refugee resettlement agency. "We haven't hit our stride yet in processing," said Greene, emphasizing the limitations the lengthy timeline presents.
    Once referred, refugees must go through an extensive review process involving interviews, a medical evaluation and an interagency security screening aimed at ensuring they don't pose a threat to the United States.
    Because this process can take as long as two years, the administration has struggled to adopt the kind of quick increase in admissions the President called for in September.
    But the slow pace further aggravates the growing refugee crisis emanating from Syria. The United States has historically led the international community in refugee resettlement, and if a large Western country like the United States -- which the United Nations counts on for assistance -- doesn't step up, it's hard to resettle anywhere near the huge volume seeking new homes.
    It also comes amid a change in public perception of refugees, with recent terror attacks in France, Belgium and San Bernardino, California, heightening fears that terrorists could exploit the migrant flow to reach the West.
    A Bloomberg Poll taken shortly after the Paris attacks in November found that 53% of American adults didn't want Syrian refugees resettled in the United States, compared to 44% in a September CNN poll.
    Critics of the resettlement program worry terrorists could enter the United States posing as refugees, a concern that took on greater significance after it was revealed that at least one of the Paris attackers entered Europe by embedding with a wave of refugees.
    "There's no question about the fact that events in Paris and then San Bernardino had an impact on public opinion, which up to that point was highly favorable," according to William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has been tracking U.S. public opinion on refugees.
    Before the Paris attacks, support for welcoming refugees was noticeably higher, particularly after a powerful image appeared online of a lifeless Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach after the boat his family was using to reach Greece capsized.
    "Those of you that saw some of those heartbreaking images of that small boy drowned, I think anybody who's a parent understands that that stirs all of our consciences," Obama said in a speech at the time.
    Since that time, the refugee crisis has become a hot-button issue on the 2016 presidential campaign trail, with sharp lines being drawn between Republican and Democratic candidates.
    At the state level, governors have reacted to the public outcry with pledges to stop accepting Syrian refugees or limit financial support for resettlement.
    Congress took up a bill that would have suspended resettlement of Syrian refugees until key national security agencies certified they didn't present a security risk.
    Texas Republican Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and a co-sponsor of the House bill, said he worries the refugee program could create opportunities for ISIS to attack the United States.
    "ISIS members in their own words have threatened to take advantage of the Syrian refugee crisis to launch attacks, and they are clearly following through on it," McCaul said in a recent statement to CNN.
    The bill passed by a significant margin in the House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate.
    Obama called such action offensive and said the country is "not well-served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic."
    But even Obama's FBI director, James Comey, has acknowledged that the vetting of Syrian refugees is an imperfect science, because the United States is limited in its ability to investigate their backgrounds.
    "If someone has never made a ripple in the pond in Syria in a way that would get their identity or their interest reflected in our database, we can query our database until the cows come home, but there will be nothing show up because we have no record of them," Comey told lawmakers last year.
    Greene, the IRC spokeswoman, said she believes the administration is still committed to helping refugees but acknowledged that there has been a marked change in rhetoric from politicians in other parts of government.
    "Certainly in Congress we've seen a tendency to want to legislate away this program," said Greene, who called the trend disturbing.
    The IRC expressed "dismay" when the President announced the goal of resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees, arguing the administration should take in 100,000 this year.
    "We really feel that it's in our national security interest to support refugees," she noted. "There is no better message to ISIS than to be an open, democratic society which embraces victims of conflict regardless of their religion."
    The U.S. State Department said it is committed to meeting the President's goal and taking active steps to increase the pace of admissions.
    Kirby said he is "mindful of the math" presented by the current rate of refugees admissions but stressed that the administration is "still very committed to the goal of reaching 10,000 by the end of the year."
    "I understand that there are some people that think it goes too slow and there are probably other people out there that think it goes too fast," he said. "We believe that we've got the balance right and we're going to keep working at this."
    Greene is optimistic about the administration's efforts and confident that organizations like the IRC can accommodate the influx of refugees whenever they reach the United States.
    "We have communities and volunteers who are just waiting to help these folks when they arrive," she said.