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U.S. Works To Speed Up Refugee Response


This week brought more Syrian images of the migrant crisis in Europe - people who have fled war and oppression, trying to breach barbed wire and police cordons in Europe. As Hungary and Croatia threw up barriers, some former U.S. officials urged the United States to open its doors wider to refugees from the Syrian war. Anne Richard, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, joins us now from the State Department. Thanks for being with us.

ANNE RICHARD: Thank you for covering this.

SIMON: The U.S. has pledged so far to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. That's just a few more than what's in an average zip code. Can't the United States take in more?

RICHARD: Well, we can make a home for many, many refugees in the United States. I'm convinced of it. But the tricky part is running a process that scrutinizes the backgrounds of the refugees before they come here to make sure we're bringing people who are legitimate refugees and who do not pose any kind of security threat to the United States. So both of those requirements is what slows down bringing lots of people to the United States.

SIMON: According to reports, that process can now take between a year-and-a-half to two years. People applying for asylum now have been told they can't even be considered until 2017. Is that the kind of timing that you really need in a crisis?

RICHARD: I can tell you that my bosses in the Obama administration would like to see the process move quickly and that for months now, even before this migrant crisis hit the headlines, we had been working to speed up the process to streamline it without cutting corners in security. At the same time, we should realize that in a crisis, the best thing to do is to get aid to the people in the places to which they've fled. We are, year in and year out, the top supporter of the world's humanitarian efforts.

SIMON: Let me ask you about policy, though. And I understand you - your title, of course, is population, refugees and migration. Gen. Austin, the U.S. military Central Command, told a Senate committee this week only four or five Syrian rebels that the U.S. trained to fight ISIS in Syria are still in the field. Is that a failure of U.S. policy - not just humanitarian relief efforts, but U.S. policy that makes even more Syrians decide they have to - and I can only phrase it this way - get out of hell?

RICHARD: We've looked at what is prompting Syrian refugees who've fled to neighboring countries to move a second time, and we think it's a couple of things. One is they may be getting too little aid to help support themselves and their families. The other is they want to support themselves, and they want to work. And right now, they're not really allowed to work in the countries to which they've fled. And so they're really searching for opportunities. They're searching for work opportunities and jobs, but they're also searching for educational opportunities.

SIMON: I mean, you've explained the problem is the backlog, not the number. But you must be aware that these former officials have urged the U.S. to accept 100,000 Syrian refugees.

RICHARD: Yes. These former officials - many of whom are my friends and former colleagues - have encouraged us to do more. And I think that the most senior leadership at the State Department, at the National Security Council and the White House want to bring more refugees. And so that's something that we're very focused on right now.

SIMON: How many Syrian refugees would you hope the United States could take in within the next year?

RICHARD: Well, next year, the president has said we will bring 10,000. And so the year after that, I'd like to see a steep ramp up. You know, most refugees have fled and tried to get to a safe place. They've gotten themselves out of danger - imminent danger - the way people inside Syria are in imminent danger - barrel bombing. But outside Syria, they've gotten themselves out of danger, but they have no future. And I think that's what prompting them to move is they want a future. And we have told the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, that we will accept into the United States people who are particularly vulnerable - people who've been tortured, people who have severe medical conditions, female-headed households with children or orphans, where they'll never be able to go home again. They've witnessed terrible things. But we think they can get a fresh start in the United States. And we know that this program works because we've seen it work year in and year out. We've brought 70,000 refugees here from around the world the last three years. And so I'm confident that our piece of this can be very successful.

SIMON: Anne Richard is the U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. Thanks so much for being with us.

RICHARD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.