Behind the numbers: a look at the refugee admissions process

  Protesters gather outside the Presidential Inauguration. 
Photo by Larisa Karr.

It was late at night in the beginning of 2016 when Jason Florio was on a speedboat traveling across the Aegean Sea. Florio, a photojournalist working with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, frequently went on expeditions across the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas to document migrants and refugees who were making the oftentimes harrowing journey to Europe.
He noticed that there was a boat on their radar that just suddenly disappeared and went out to the location where it was.
“It was just total darkness and when we got to the position where the boat should have been, all we could hear was just people shouting from the water from kind of a few hundred meters away and as we got close, we could see that there were probably about twenty people just spread out in the water, some holding children,” Florio said.
Florio and the crew began to help bring people on boat when he noticed something particularly jarring.
“We brought the bodies back onto our boats and there were two mothers,” Florio said. “They didn’t realize that their children had died. It was just absolutely awful to see these poor women looking at their beautiful little children laid on the deck. It’s stuck in our minds forever.”
Eighty percent of refugees won’t make it to Europe or other Western countries like the United States.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, developed countries host only 20 percent of refugees, while the rest remain in camps in the world’s poorest countries.
These refugees, Florio said, attempt to migrate to Western countries in pursuit of a better life.  
In the United States, refugee admissions have been slashed by Trump from 110,000 to 45,000, according to the White House.
Million Makonnen, Executive Director of the North Carolina African Services Coalition, said this number is surprising.
“This has never happened before in the history of the United States,” Makonnen said. “We don’t know what the future holds for these people.”
Elizabeth Colton, a former diplomat and foreign service officer with the U.S. government, said Trump’s ‘America First’ rhetoric has actually been an established component of U.S. foreign policy for years and the U.S. has always been trying to persuade countries neighboring the conflicts to accept more refugees.
“The American diplomats, along with the diplomats of the other receiver countries that are Western, are working diplomatically with the neighboring countries to try to persuade them,” Colton said. “ But the fact of the matter is, we were always doing that.”
For the refugees that do reach the United States, the process is long and arduous.
According to the Department of State, there are seven steps in the Refugee Processing and Screening System.
First, the refugee is referred to the UN Refugee Agency, which then collects basic biographical information and documentation. After this information is sent to a Department of State Resettlement Support Center (RSC), an interview takes place and a series of background checks by the National Counterterrorism Center, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the Department of State and the intelligence community takes place.
Adam Clark is the Office Director of World Relief Durham, one of the nine voluntary refugee processing centers run by the U.S. State Department.
“An individual refugee would undergo health, biometrics and deep background checks, as well as interviews by Homeland Security staff for on average about two years,” Clark said.
Once the biometric security checks and interviews are complete, they complete a cultural orientation about American customs and undergo a medical check.
Every week, representatives from the nine domestic resettlement agencies meet to look over information about the refugees submitted from the Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System and determine where to resettle each refugee. Shortly thereafter, the refugee is notified.
When they arrive in the U.S., individuals like Makonnen are there to welcome them.
“Once we know that a family or individual is coming on a certain date, we prepare an apartment for them with pillows, mattresses, bedsheets. There are a list of things that are required,” Makonnen said. “We take them to their house, where there will be appropriate, ready-made food for the family when they get home.”
Shortly thereafter, according to Makonnen, individuals will go through an orientation program, apply for social security and enroll in an English class.
The U.S., however, does not recognize economic refugees, people who are fleeing to overcome oppressive poverty. The majority of individuals fleeing to Europe are economic migrants and refugees.
“If people are able to cross the border into Turkey and make it to a UN camp, they can then apply for refugee status,” Clark said. “The whole international refugee program, the goal of it, is to return people to their homes once it’s been determined that it’s safe to return.”
The vocabulary of displaced individuals throughout the world is oftentimes confused, according to the UNHCR.
An asylum seeker is “someone whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed.”
This means that, even though they may meet the definition of refugee, they have not been interviewed and officially designated as such. In contrast to asylum seekers and refugees are internally displaced people, who, according to the UNHCR, are "persons or groups of persons who have been forced to flee, or leave, their homes or places of habitual residence as a result of armed conflict, internal strife and habitual violations of human rights, as well as natural or man-made disasters involving one or more of these elements, and who have not crossed an internationally recognised state border."
The application process through the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services for asylum seekers is similar to that of a refugee, with the applicant having to undergo extensive background checks and interviews.
With an estimated 65.6 million people forced from their home according to UNHCR, Florio’s work remains relevant.
“The Syrian refugees I met, they had absolutely no choice about their situation,” Florio said. “They were forced from their homes and I think that’s the least we can do as human beings is to try and give people a welcome and give them some kind of sanctuary.”

This article was originally published in The Blue Banner.