Syrian refugee crisis: It's about compassion and security

Story highlights

  • Rep. Chris Smith: I voted for H.R. 4038, the American SAFE Act of 2015, on the Syrian refugees crisis
  • A resolution that seriously considers both compassion and security is urgently required

Chris Smith is U.S. representative from New Jersey, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chairman of the House Global Human Rights Subcommittee, the U.S. Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)On November 19, I voted for H.R. 4038, the American SAFE Act of 2015, which requires that, in addition to the Department of Homeland Security screening, the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducts background investigations on any aliens seeking U.S. refugee admission.

I took this position because I believe we must find a way forward in addressing the current Syrian refugee crisis that incorporates compassion and security. Both are justified.
Syria's crisis of refugees and internally displaced people has fueled the largest such emergency in Europe since World War II and involves seven countries in the Middle East. At least 250,000 people have been killed in Syria's civil war, with the security forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responsible for many of them. However, ISIS and other extremist groups also have been responsible for killing Syrian civilians.
    Rep. Chris Smith
    According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), up to 700,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe by sea alone this year. More than half of them -- an estimated 53% -- are from Syria. Of those refugees and migrants, 20% are children, only 14% are women and the vast majority (65%) are men.
    Violence plays a major role in the impetus of Syrians to leave their homes and flee their increasingly dangerous country, but Shelly Pitterman of the UNHCR said perhaps the main trigger for flight is the humanitarian funding shortfall. In recent months, the World Food Programme (WFP) cut its program by as much as 40%. The current Syrian Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan for 2015 is only 41% funded. The UNHCR expects to receive just 47% of the funding it needs for Syria in the next year.
    Secretary of State John Kerry said in September that the United States intends to resettle at least 85,000 refugees in fiscal year 2016, including 10,000 Syrians. Certainly, there is a grave humanitarian need for Syrians. My subcommittee has held numerous hearings attesting to the genocide -- and that is no exaggeration -- being faced by both Christians and Yazidis, a non-Islamic religious minority in the territory controlled by ISIS.
    Thousands of people in both groups have been hounded by ISIS, and U.N. experts said this past August that 1,500 Christians and Yazidis have been forced into sexual slavery. People whose ancestors have lived in this region for millennia are being chased from their traditional homes and left to the mercy of an international community less and less able to meet their needs or even defend their lives in too many instances. Those leaving ISIS territory definitely have a good reason to flee.
    However, we also must acknowledge the danger of infiltrators coming among the refugees. ISIS has announced its intention to attack the United States as it has France. Certainly, there have been failed or thwarted terrorist efforts here in our homeland since 9/11. Still, it only takes one successful attempt to cause the kind of tragedy that cost the lives of more than 3,000 people at the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon 14 years ago.
    Aaron Brown, writing in London's Express newspaper on November 18, quoted an ISIS spokesman who said the group has smuggled more than 4,000 covert operatives into Western nations hidden among innocent refugees -- ready to engage in future attacks, especially in the European Union, which has been flooded with refugees from the Middle East due to conflicts there. While it's not possible to check this claim, we cannot dismiss the ambition of ISIS to take advantage of the refugees crisis.
    Now the Obama administration is seeking to allow the United States to become home to thousands of new refugees after having taken in thousands of people from the region over the past few decades. Most of these people are law-abiding adherents to orthodox views of the Muslim religion, but we are seeing hundreds of young Muslims being radicalized and some attempting to go to the Middle East to join jihadist campaigns.
    ISIS has distributed a guide on "How to Survive in the West" to those sent to the United States or those it has radicalized to teach them methods to launch an attack in the West. Given the fact that so-called "sleeper agents" may live inconspicuously for years, how can we detect those who may merely be waiting for an opportune moment to launch an attack?
    FBI Director James Comey said in congressional testimony last month that there are gaps in the data that will prevent effective vetting of current refugees from the region -- even though the administration continues to tout its "robust" vetting process.
    So as the result of neglect in preventing or ending the Syrian conflict several years ago and a lackluster effort to fulfill promises of humanitarian assistance since then, we face growing anxieties about a flood of people who desperately need our help, even as we must consider the security concerns that President Obama and his Cabinet members seem determined to ignore.
    Simple solutions won't work, but an acceptable resolution that seriously considers both compassion and security is urgently required. A moratorium on refugee resettlement is justified until both concerns are in balance.