Refugee groups: Encouraged but waiting

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A Syrian refugee girl looks out from behind the fence at Yayladagi refugee camp in Hatay province near the Turkish-Syrian border April 10, 2012.

The case made this week by Gov. Jay Inslee to accept Syrian refugees prompted a wide-reaching conversation, with political ripples felt both locally and nationally. For the resettlement agencies that work with refugees in Washington state, Inslee's stance was a welcome sign of support, even if it was largely symbolic.

Less clear, however, is whether bitterness expressed toward Syrian refugees by Republican presidential candidates, governors and lawmakers, both before and after Inslee's statements, will pose difficulties for resettlement work in the future.

For now, refugee group leaders say, Inslee's statements, welcome though they find them, won't have any immediate effects on their work facilitating refugees’ transition into new homes.

The reasons why are relatively simple. Infrastructure in place at the federal and international levels determines which refugees receive authorization to enter the United States. Where in the country they ultimately end up can depend on a number of factors, including the capabilities of local refugee resettlement agencies to provide necessary services.

The key placement factors, officials say, include such considerations as the availability of English language help, cultural assistance, jobs and housing—and whether the refugee in question has a connection, say family or friends, to a given state. Even the presence of other refugees from the same community or nation can help.

According to Sarah Peterson, the state refugee coordinator at the state Department of Social and Health Services, Washington has accepted around 3,000 refugees over the last several years. Nearly 50 percent of them had ties to the Evergreen State before arriving. Peterson expects a small increase to those numbers in the coming year, but at this point we don’t know whether the additional refugees will be Syrians. She says the refugees will arrive “in a trickle, not a flood” and will be dispersed across the state, where a strong refugee resettlement infrastructure awaits their arrival.

Twenty-five Syrians arrived in the last federal fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. In the previous 10 years, seven refugees had come from Syria.

The Syrians among the eventual newcomers are likely people currently involved in a long and arduous vetting process, which all refugees undergo before entering the country. As a first step, refugees are screened in refugee camps by representatives of the United Nations. This phase helps to establish the refugee’s identity and to determine whether his or her circumstances meet certain criteria mandated by international and U.S. law. (To gain refugee status one must document a well-founded fear of personal persecution based on their race, religion, ethnicity, membership in a particular group or political views.)

From here, the bureaucratic obstacles proliferate. Those who are accepted to the United States are met with a broad and complicated array of security and medical screenings conducted by the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, intelligence agencies, and the United States Citizenship and Immigrations Services. Experts say the entire process can take 18 to 24 months. For Syrians, it could be much longer.

In Washington state refugee resettlement agencies received Inslee's statement with pride. George Hope, the director of the Refugee Resettlement Office, a group affiliated with the Diocese of Olympia, told Crosscut that he was heartened by the governor’s comments.

“Everyone working in [refugee] resettlement feels a sense of relief that our governor is sticking up for us and what we do,” he said.

In the meantime, Hope says his office will proceed with business as usual while preparing for the next refugees to arrive. His team, along with a handful of other private and public organizations, including the International Rescue Committee and the Department of Social and Health Services, will provide refugees with the support they need. Among the toughest challenges for refugees, Hope says, is finding an apartment and securing employment.

“You don’t want to bring people here and re-traumatize them because agencies can’t keep up with finding a decent place to stay,” he said.

Giving refugees a choice in where they live is an important part of the process, Hope says, but that expectation is increasingly complicated by the rising costs of rent in King County, where the majority of refugees in the state settle.

According to Peterson, the largest refugee communities in the state include people from Iraq, Somalia, Bhutan, Burma, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Even though Inslee reaffirmed his commitment to the principles that guide the work of Peterson, Hope, and the other local resettlement organizations, there is some concern that the fearful tone characterizing discussions about Syrian refugees around the country could lead to problems in the future. Bob Johnson, the executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Seattle, told Crosscut that legislation passed Thursday in the U.S. House of Representatives seeking to tighten restrictions on Iraqi and Syrian refugees could be evidence that federal resources for local refugee resettlement programs may be at risk.

Funding still needs to be secured for the additional 10,000 refugees that President Barack Obama announced the U.S. will accept in the next year.

“I’m not fearful at the moment,” Johnson said. “But I think the drama is just beginning to unfold.”  


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About the Authors & Contributors

Mason Bryan

Mason Bryan

Mason Bryan is formerly Crosscut's associate opinion editor.