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Scott Preston

A race against the clock for Syrian refugees

Many Syrian refugees feel they have lost a unique window of opportunity [Getty]

Date of publication: 9 January, 2017

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With Donald Trump taking office in just over a week's time, Syrian refugees due to be resettled in the US fear they will be locked out by the president-elect.
Since the start of the war, Syrian refugees living in Lebanon have faced further hurdles in emigrating to the US - the world's largest resettlement hub - due to infrastructure shortcomings at the American embassy in Beirut.

In Spring 2016, the US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) resumed its local induction process after a long hiatus, raising the hopes of refugees' eager to relocate.

However, many who enrolled in the months-long vetting process fear this window of opportunity could be lost due to expected refugee policy reversals under the upcoming Donald Trump administration.

Lebanon hosts the second highest Syrian refugee population - estimated to be over 1.5 million - and the highest per-capita count of refugees globally.

Although the US is the leading refugee resettlement country it welcomes relatively few Syrians from Lebanon. Only 795 people from Lebanon were resettled in the US during the 2016 fiscal year, while Washington accepted 14 times more refugees from Jordan during the same period.

This discrepancy is partly due to the fact that the embassy compound doesn't have the space to accommodate more than five department of homeland security (DHS) officers, who are responsible for conducting refugee intake interviews.

While USRAP personnel are often housed in external accommodations in other countries, security protocol in Lebanon prevent the officers from expanding operations outside the embassy.

Squeezed in 

Robert Ward, the refugee coordinator at the US embassy in Beirut, said that the logisitical constraints at the mission has resulted in the whole process being delayed.

"We don't have a lot of sleeping quarters for the DHS officers who come out to do interviews and they have to stay on the compound because that's what our security people have directed. In places like Turkey or Jordan we don't do the interviews at the embassy," Ward said.

"We do them in a different building downtown that we've rented for our contracted partner… the interview with DHS [here] have to be done from the embassy. So the embassy is really constraining how many interviews we can do in Lebanon."

The relative trickle of refugees from Lebanon came to a halt when construction prevented DHS circuit riders from staying at the embassy in 2014. This freeze began only months after the UNHCR began referring Syrian cases to the US for resettlement.

I think people both in the government and in the NGO community feel like there could be major changes [with Trump]
- Beth Ferris, a research professor 

"If you've been to the embassy recently you'd see they've constructed some new sleeping quarters and so forth," described Ward. "We brought marines back to the post - we did not have marines there in 30 years - so there was no spare sleeping quarters for the DHS visitors. It took 18 months before we had some new quarters constructed where all the marines could stay and also some temporary visitors could stay and we could start up operations again."

Refugees whose files were under review by the US became entangled in the resettlement pipeline for the duration of the year-and-a-half freeze, as files may only be processed by one country at a time.

In February 2016, the USRAP finally resumed work in Lebanon, enabling backlogged refugees and new candidates to be considered for resettlement to the US once again.

In the 2017 fiscal year, the Obama administration planned to increase refugee admissions by up to 30 percent. However, these goals are likely to be cut short by President-elect Donald Trump who has raised the possibility of suspending Muslim immigration to the US and proposed an "ideology test".

"I think people both in the government and in the NGO community feel like there could be major changes [with Trump]," said Beth Ferris, a research professor at Georgetown's Institute for the Study of International Migration.

"Everybody is just waiting to see what will happen. There's a feeling that refugee resettlement - perhaps of Syrians or perhaps of Muslims under some other name - will be put on hold."

Unlike other federal programmes, the USRAP can be discontinued solely by the president's executive power. "I think that he [Trump] could announce changes on day one of his administration. He's indicated that this is a priority for him," said Ferris.

With the 20 January presidential inauguration fast approaching, refugees might not have much time to cycle through the US' notoriously long resettlement process.

We just want to get there and we hope he [Trump] won't prevent us from travelling there. That's what we are worried about.
- Ahmed al-Ali, Syrian refugee

Kathleen Norland, the Middle East director at the International Refugee Assistance Project - an NGO providing legal services - said that US resettlement can take anywhere between eight months and two years.

"That tends to be a little longer than most countries, which tends to be along the lines of six months to a year. It's quite a bit longer."

Resettlement pipeline

Many refugees in Lebanon are concerned that the newly reopened window of opportunity for US resettlement could be closed prematurely and that another freeze could result in years more waiting.

Ahmad al-Ali and his family - who were tentatively approved for relocation - fear they might be cut out of US resettlement altogether.

"We just want to get there and we hope he [Trump] won't prevent us from travelling there. That's what we are worried about," said Ali.

After three years as a registered refugee in Lebanon, Mazen - who didn't want to use his last name citing safety concerns - was contacted by the US resettlement contractor several months ago.

"Now there is a new administration in America and they announced many times on the campaign of President-elect Trump, they will minimise the share of Syrian refugees and maybe it would be zero," he laments. "I'm afraid my case, it wouldn’t reach the final stage."

Mazen's fears centre on his soon-to-be expired Syrian identification card and the future of his nine-month-old son.

"I'm thinking that someday he will join a school here, and his counterparts and friends, when they recognise that he is Syrian, it will be not nice because we watched a lot of videos about children punishing their counterparts because they are Syrian."

According to Ward the embassy is exploring the possibility of expanding its facilities and continues to process refugees at a normal pace. However, the fate of many refugees in Lebanon remains uncertain and their futures ultimately lie in the hands of the next US leader.

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