US Restarts Stricter Refugee Program, 11 Countries Still Banned

The US will once again accept refugees after a 120-day ban on admissions lapsed on Tuesday, with new arrivals facing stricter security screening, US officials have announced. Arrivals from 11 nations will, however, remain blocked from entry, pending a 90-day review on implementing even stricter screening measures. The new state of affairs came after US President Donald Trump signed a presidential decree late Tuesday to replace one that expired that day. Authorities have declined to specify the 11 countries on the temporary ban list, but said they matched a 2015 list for tougher screening, requiring a "Security Advisory Opinion."

Refugee agencies said the affected countries were Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. All but two are Muslim-majority nations. Out of the 53,716 refugees the US accepted in the 2017 financial year, almost half came from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Somalia. Some applicants from those 11 countries will be looked at on a case-by-case basis, "if it's deemed to be in the national interest and they pose no threat," a senior US official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

'Enhanced' vetting

Applicants from all countries will face "enhanced" vetting, including more detailed checks of social media posts and connections, said Jennifer Higgins, associate director for refugees at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency. "The security of the American people is our highest priority," she told journalists in a briefing. The measures will also include collecting additional information to better determine whether refugees are being truthful about their status, stationing fraud detection officers at certain locations overseas and improving training for adjudicators who process refugee applications.

In his election campaign, Trump vowed to "stop the massive inflow of refugees" and warned that terrorists were posing as refugees fleeing war-torn Syria. "Thousands of refugees are being admitted with no way to screen them and are instantly made eligible for welfare and free health care, even as our own veterans, our great, great veterans, die while they're waiting online for medical care that they desperately need," Trump said last October.

A program that allows reunification of refugee families has also been placed on hold, according to a Trump administration memo seen by the Reuters news agency and sent to Congress. The program will resume once screening "enhancements have been implemented." Trump's various travel bans have been legally challenged in several cases. But the Supreme Court on Tuesday dismissed the last remaining challenge to an earlier version of Trump's travel ban.

Process will add months or years

Jennifer Sime, senior vice president of US programs for the International Rescue Committee aid group, said ahead of the announcement that she was concerned the new screening procedures would add months or even years to the most urgent refugee cases. Sime said most of those cases involve women and children in "heinous circumstances who need the permanent and proven solution of resettlement." "With a world facing brutal and protracted conflicts like in Syria, or new levels of displacement and unimaginable violence against the Rohingya — this moment is a test of the world's humanity, moral leadership and ability to learn from the horrors of the past," she said. Refugees International, an advocacy group, said the decision to bar the 11 countries amounted to "a new and near-total ban on admission of refugees from 11 nationality groups."


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