Mulu Bahre had been sitting across from a US refugee officer for hours, answering a series of detailed questions about his life before he fled Eritrea with his mother and sister nearly five years earlier. But there was one question that stumped him.
“What month did your father die?” the officer asked. He knew the answer was either late March or April of 2002, but he was a child at the time and could not remember with certainty.
Bahre knew the officer might grow suspicious if his answer was different from that given by his mother, who was being asked the same question by a different refugee officer on the other side of the wall.
“It’s very scary and very stressful,” Bahre told Business Insider. “My mum knows that I may not know, and these things can be seen as discrepancies in our cases. So we all have that fear. We don’t know if all the things are going to match up.”
Bahre and his family had left Eritrea when he was 12. They were trying to escape the country’s authoritarian regime, where citizens are forced into indefinite military service and dealt heavy fines if their family members don’t comply. They wound up in an Ethiopian refugee camp, where in 2007 his mother applied for resettlement. She didn’t care where they were sent — as long as it was peaceful and there was work available.
The office of UN High Commissioner for Refugees assigned the family to the US and started a process that would take years and eventually lead Bahre, now 24, to Baltimore, where he has become a US citizen and works as an anesthesia critical-care technician.
But before all that came the questions, seemingly endless and exhausting questions. At points the officer would try to confuse Bahre, asking him to confirm details they both knew were incorrect.
“It’s not complicated, we know our story. But they try to trick you,” Bahre said.
Thankfully, Bahre made it through that round of the interview, and another one, for which he was taken to another city for a full week. Refugee officers asked him many of the same questions, checking to make sure all his answers matched what he told them the first time.
Shortly after taking office last month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily barring entry to refugees and travellers from seven majority-Muslim nations. He cited security concerns, and said he wants to enact what he calls “extreme vetting.” The order is on hold, following an appeals-court decision.
But those closest to the refugee-vetting process say the current system is already as extreme as it gets. Like Bahre’s family, refugees undergo years of screening filled with intensive interviews, detailed background checks, medical tests, and constant waiting for news.
“I don’t know how much harder it can get from that,” Bahre said. “That process is very sensitive and very stressful, and I don’t know how else they would increase that from what it is currently.”
Of the 20 million refugees worldwide, only 1% (200,000) are resettled. Many are staying put in camps, hoping things stabilise in their home countries.
But for those who want to seek safety in another country, the first stop on the path is to register with the UNHCR, which fills out paperwork, handles preliminary questioning, and scans the refugees’ eyes to enter into a database. Then the UNHCR, a country’s embassy, or a humanitarian group might refer the refugees to a specific country willing to take them in.
For those refugees who are assigned to the US, the UNHCR passes their stories and information to the US government, triggering a multiagency effort that involved the departments of State, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and Defence, as well as the FBI and other parts of the US Intelligence Community, many testing their biographic and biometric information against multiple databases repeatedly throughout the process.
And amid all the screening come those interviews — many, many interviews that can last three or four hours each and consist of detailed and repeated questions, according to Tammy Lin, a San Diego-based immigration lawyer who worked at a refugee-resettlement agency for nine years.
The State Department says the whole process should take between 18 and 24 months. But Lin said that estimate is “laughable.” It took four to eight years for most of the refugees she’s met.
Lin said she can only assume people like Trump are ignorant of the process when they call for “extreme vetting” and tighter security measures due to the threat posed by refugees.
“They’re the most heavily vetted immigrants that end up coming to the US,” Lin said. “I feel like it’s scapegoating to put this on them.”
‘The inclination is not to say yes’
American refugee officers look for reasons to deny entry. US officials accept barely 50% of refugees who start the vetting process, according to the UNHCR.
Bryan Scott Hicks, an Ohio-based immigration lawyer who works with resettled refugee families, said he has seen cases where refugees were denied resettlement simply because they may have once offered food to someone considered a terrorist. Refugee officers consider that providing “material support” to terrorism and immediately deny them entry.
Hicks said many resettled Syrian families have told him that the officers in charge of vetting them would interview each family member separately — including young children — and ask incredibly detailed questions, and then bring each of them back for a second, third, or fourth round to try to catch discrepancies in their stories.
“The thing that people don’t realise is how cautious they are,” Hicks told Business Insider. “The inclination is not to say yes. The default is no. So if you have an officer who catches the remotest whiff of a problem, the answer is no.”
And a problem can be not having the right documents. Refugees, often fleeing war and terror, might not have the time or foresight to pack a passport or birth certificate. Bahre’s family had no documentation other than the UN-issued refugee card with an identification number.
In these cases, officers have to get creative, seeking details from informants, affidavits from family members, or consulting third parties who knew the refugees from their home countries and can corroborate information.
“It’s a long process, it’s a hard process, it’s an emotional process, and it does take a long time,” Robin Dunn Marcos, the senior director of processing and resettlement at the International Rescue Committee, told Business Insider. “It’s a roller coaster under the best of conditions.”
Despite the multiple interviews, the majority of the screening happens behind the scenes, leaving many refugees unsure of their status and why the process is taking so long.
Americans’ fear of refugees
Like Bahre’s family, many refugees who want to be resettled are not particularly picky about where they land. The US is often not their top choice, preferring places like Sweden, or other European countries known for their history of accepting refugees and generosity with social payments, according to Lin, the lawyer from San Diego.
The notion that refugees will commit terrorist attacks on American soil appears to be a similarly unfounded fear. A recent Cato Institute study found that the odds of being killed by a refugee committing a terrorist act on US soil is one in 3.6 billion per year. It’s far more likely for terrorists to find another way to enter the country due to the rigorous vetting process for refugees, Hicks said.
“It’s a rigorous system, it’s working, and if you’re going to demand 100% certainty, that’s impossible,” Hicks said. “I don’t know a government program that works better than that.”
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