How to Screen 600 Syrian Refugees a Day: A "Surge Operation"

By Nayla Rush, April 8, 2016

We just heard about the first Syrian family to arrive in the U.S. from Jordan under the new resettlement program called "surge operation". A "temporary processing center" opened in Amman, Jordan, this February to speed up the resettlement process from 18-24 months to just three.

Forty-five-year-old Ahmad Al-Abboud, his wife, and five children landed in Kansas City this week. The family fled the Syrian city of Homs and was living in Jordan for the past three years. Ahmad could not find a job there, the family surviving on food coupons.

U.S. ambassador Alice Wells, at the airport in Jordan to see the Al-Abboud family off, spoke to the media: "This family is the first family to depart after having been granted refugee status by our U.S. immigration officers during our three-month resettlement surge operation that began on February 1." The temporary processing center, she added, will run until April 28 and will process 10,000 refugees. It is part of "our effort to reach President Obama's directive to send 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States by September 30, 2016, while also ensuring that every refugee accepted by the United States has been thoroughly screened and vetted through our rigorous security process."

Six hundred interviews will take place at the center every day to meet that goal. Most of the 10,000 refugees will be resettled from Jordan despite the fact that all Syrian refugees are covered by the surge.

Gina Kassem, regional refugee coordinator at the U.S. Embassy in Amman, said that the 10,000 target was "a floor and not a ceiling," with a possibility to increase the number. She also reminded reporters about the role of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in referring the most vulnerable cases to the U.S. for review. Priority is always given to traumatized groups, such as victims of torture or gender-based violence, she concluded.

At the airport, Ahmad Al-Abboud spoke as well: "I'm happy. America is the country of freedom and democracy". He stressed how he "wanted to learn English and find a job in America to support his family" and was "ready to integrate in the U.S. and start a new life."

We wish Al-Abboud family all the best in the U.S. and give Ahmad an A+ for a lesson well-learned. The UN staff does prepare its candidates well, there's no doubt about that.

We also have a number of concerns.

First, 600 interviews a day sounds a bit extreme (to say the least). Even speed-dating doesn't have such aspirations. How can a "rigorous security process" be respected under such conditions? Furthermore, why the urgency? We understand that refugees face desperate conditions, but such security and judgment compromises seem irresponsible.

Let's put security issues to the side for now and do the math. Six hundred interviews a day for three months (February 1 to April 28), with a five-day work week, comes to a total of 36,000 interviews. It doesn't add up, unless out of 36,000 interviews only 10,000 are chosen – which equates to a 28 percent approval rate. Perhaps UNHCR staff is not doing such a great referral job after all. Or is it the ceiling that is getting higher as we speak?

Also, why Syrian refugees being resettled from Jordan only? Isn't that discriminating against those in neighboring countries?

There's another puzzling matter. Resettled refugees, as we are often reminded, are the ones who are the most vulnerable, such as victims of torture or extreme trauma, or those in need of special care they cannot find in their country of refuge. Perhaps we missed something, but how does this apply to Al-Abbouds? Why were they selected and not others from the millions of Syrians outside their country who are also suffering from unemployment, destitution, and despair?

Just wondering.