Inside the thorough process of vetting refugees

Sarah Cunningham

What kind of knife was the man that killed your father holding? Can you remember how many stars were on the jacket of the military officer that raped you? How many hours were you on the boat that night before the smuggler shot your brother and threw him overboard?

How did you survive if you couldn’t swim?


I give her time to rest. I let the interpreter decide when the client is ready again.

Ready for me to continue the utterly invasive questions that will follow for hours, in four to five different sessions over a period of weeks or months, as part of my work as a legal adviser to Middle Eastern and African asylum seekers in Egypt.

My questions are invasive in part because the system of refugee status determination managed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees isn’t like the domestic US court system. As an asylum seeker, you carry a burden of proof. You have to defend that you’re not lying about being a refugee — that you are in fact fleeing danger and have a credible fear of persecution.

Your word alone isn’t enough; we need photo evidence, corroborating country of origin intelligence, documents, and medical records. And most of all, we need to know that however many different ways we ask you, the story always lines up. Your case hangs on your credibility.

President Trump is suggesting that the process for vetting is not thorough enough, not exacting enough. “‘We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas,” he said when he signed his executive order on immigrants and refugees last week.

But there is a rigorous process to achieve just that objective already — more stringent than most Americans imagine. As someone who has worked in refugee resettlement for five years, including as a legal adviser and a co-founder of a refugee resettlement clinic in Egypt, I can tell you how wrong Trump’s characterization is.

Refugee resettlement is crushingly exclusive, reserved only for those who successfully navigate a vast, distrustful bureaucracy

When asylum seekers walk into the small legal aid clinic in downtown Cairo, there are three things that become readily apparent: that their former life was stolen from them; how little they have now; and how meager your assistance will be in helping them retrieve what they’ve lost. The first question I ask a client, which will mark the next two to five years of their life, seeks to answer how that happened.

I once had to excuse myself after a screening interview with a Somali client. She described the basis of her claim: After she was nearly raped by a militia leader, she said goodbye to her mother and sister and escaped with her brother in the middle of the night. Only a few hours later, she saw her brother shot in front of her just as they arrived to her country of refuge, and she spent the next seven years alone, with no contact with family and no community. As she told me this, she didn’t shiver or cry, but I did, because I recognized that steely face, one born from a life of struggle and a casualization of brutality.

Clients are initially directed to a multilingual administrator, who is trained to ask a series of eligibility questions — a first interview about the terms of their asylum claim, and what services they might need (do they have kids, continuing trauma episodes, urgent health concerns, etc.). For those seeking refugee status, a privilege that merely secures their right to not be deported, the process may take one to two years. If they are pursuing resettlement to a third country like Canada, Switzerland, or the US, as many hope to, this process, if successful, will last anywhere from two to five years.

But in reality, refugee resettlement is crushingly exclusive, reserved only for those who successfully navigate a vast, inherently distrustful bureaucracy and pass some of the most stringent background checks in the world. Of all the registered refugees across the globe in 2015, fewer than 1 percent were resettled. Most remain trapped in countries neighboring violence, never able make it to Europe, let alone the United States.

As for refugee children, in places like Egypt, they are not permitted to attend public school. So a delay or a halt of refugee resettlement is not like waiting for a promotion. It’s like waiting for life to begin again.

Coming to the US as a refugee requires answering seemingly endless questions about the worst days of your life

After an asylum seeker’s initial interview, the client meets with their legal adviser in four subsequent sessions where they are asked about the minute details surrounding the worst days of their life. Why did the security forces detain all the men coming past the checkout in Damascus that day? Describe the room — how were you hung up? Where did they attach the electric cable on your body? Did you ever see your sister again?

Some of these questions, as you might imagine, are very difficult for clients to discuss. Their grief and memories of terror pour over into tears and often long, heavy pauses. However, it’s a legal adviser’s job to be as kind yet as dispassionate as possible. The client must remain steady and credible throughout — to be fixed and to answer the interviewer’s questions even as they remember when the floor under them lost its form and carried away their life.

After four sessions of these merciless questions, the client is provided written legal testimony in English and, in some cases, legal advocacy (legal representation lite) during their interview at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. If, and only if, the asylum seeker is granted refugee status, then the resettlement process begins. For those keeping count, the successful refugee client who’s received legal aid has, by this point, already completed six interviews.

Seeking the resettlement process in the United States, if they succeed, will mean one to four additional years, during which time their case will undergo 18 additional levels of screenings. They will be interviewed, with the help of an interpreter, by three additional vetting bodies, a US government Resettlement Support Center, the Department of Homeland Security, and custom officials — for a total of nine interviews that can last from one hour to six hours each. In between these interviews, their names and biographical data will be checked against a State Department database, and any information identified in these background checks will inform the next interviewers’ questions. Next, the refugee’s biometric profile, such as fingerprints and photos, will be checked against an interagency database.

The irony of President Trump’s executive order: The most vetted are the most suspected

By the time refugees who have gone through the UNHCR process are approved for resettlement to the US, they will have been vetted by international legal advisers, the US State Department, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the US intelligence community, and, of course, the UNHCR itself. Syrians will also undergo an additional vetting by US Citizenship and Immigration Services.

No individual who sets foot on American soil will ever have been more vetted and verified than a refugee is. And all of this after their identity has been nearly stripped from them in the rapture that took away their former life. It seems unbelievable that an individual seeking to harm the US would choose a torturous process that 99 percent of worthy, credible individuals fail to access — especially given that anyone who passes through the resettlement process is immediately on the radar of top intelligence agencies.

The irony of President Trump’s executive order is palpable. The most vetted are the most suspected. The most terrorized are those painted as terrorists. Up is down. Wrong is right. And only ISIS and President Trump can seem to agree on the same plan of action — send them back.

Susannah Cunningham is a Truman National Security Project fellow. In 2008, she co-founded the Resettlement Legal Aid Project, a Cairo-based legal clinic originally created to serve Iraqi refugees, many translators, drivers, and contractors targeted for their work with Coalition Forces and American organizations. Today the clinic is the sole provider of legal assistance to Egypt’s sizable urban refugee population from Africa and the Middle East.


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