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U.S. Faces Challenges In Plan To Resettle 100,000 Refugees By 2017


The U.S. plans to welcome more refugees from around the world. Secretary of State John Kerry announced over the weekend that the U.S. will increase the number by tens of thousands, but only a fraction will be people fleeing the war in Syria. That's because security screening makes it difficult to resettle refugees from that part of the world, as NPR's Michele Kelemen explains.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The world is facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II, and activists say the U.S. should lead by example and shelter many more than it currently does. Secretary Kerry says the U.S. would like to do more but is careful about who it lets in.


JOHN KERRY: One of the reasons it's difficult is that post-9/11, we have new laws and new requirements with respect to security background checks and vetting, so it takes longer than one would like. And we cannot cut corners with respect to those security requirements.

KELEMEN: The U.S. resettles about 70,000 refugees a year from Burma, Iraq, Somalia and other conflict zones. Kerry says the idea is to boost that global number to 100,000 by 2017, that is if Congress approves more money to do this. Eleanor Acer of the advocacy group Human Rights First says the U.S. should be taking in 100,000 from Syria alone.

ELEANOR ACER: If the United States is not willing to take a bold step forward, how is it going to encourage other states to follow its example and also increase their contributions to resettlement?

KELEMEN: At the moment, she says, the U.S. steps have been incremental. The Obama administration says it plans to resettle about 10,000 Syrians in the next year. That's 10,000 out of the 4 million who have overwhelmed neighboring countries. And Acer said aid groups don't have the money they need to help the Syrians where they are.

ACER: Whatever limited savings some of these families have has totally been depleted. And meanwhile, the situation in Syria has deteriorated even more. And the violence has escalated, and refugees are losing hope.

KELEMEN: She thinks the U.S. can respond to this in a way that doesn't compromise American security.

ACER: We do have the capacity to bring a refugee to safety in this country in a much quicker timeframe than what we're now doing, which is, you know, 18 months, two years. That's just way too slow.

KELEMEN: The U.S. gets referrals from the U.N. Refugee Agency and then does security and health checks. Of the 18,000 Syrians referred so far, the U.S. has accepted just 1,500 since the war in Syria began. The Obama administration says it remains a leader in humanitarian aid, though, announcing today another $419 million in aid for Syrians caught up in the war. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.