Do Refugees Pose a Terrorist Threat? Here’s the Facts.


When President Obama announced that he’s prepared to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, the interwebs nearly exploded.  From people preaching that the influx of Muslims would bring a terrorist attack of apocalyptic proportions to people crying out to be charitable, there has been no shortage of political, religious, or economic opinions.  Bloggers, news networks, and politicians paint this bleak picture of 10,000 Syrians crossing their border, climbing aboard the Mayflower, just waiting for a governor to give the green light to land.  And because we have no vetting process (or at least that’s what we’re told), there are raging Muslim men and terrorists hiding among them just waiting to spread their seed of Islam, rape your daughters, and murder you.  Remember, that’s how they attacked Paris.  Right?

If only the age of information weren’t full of lots of misinformation.  It’s time to get the facts (after all it’s readily available on the internet… at least on reputable sites).

There is a vetting process for refugees, and it’s intense.

There is one organization in the world that is permitted to give refugee status, and that is the UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency. When you see those massive refugee camps on the news, the people inhabiting those camps may all be refugees seeking assylum, but they all haven’t received official “refugee” status. The UNHCR has a 171 page handbook on guidelines and procedures of determining a person’s refugee status.  Because of the intense process, not everyone that flees a country applies for refugee status. In fact, the UNHCR estimates that “13.9 million individuals were newly displaced due to conflict or persecution in 2014. This includes 11.0 million persons newly displaced within the borders of their own country, the highest figure on record. The other 2.9 million individuals were new refugees.” Of those, only 1.7 applied for refugee or asylum status in 2014 (which is still a record high). However, UNHCR only accepted and registered 245,700 or 15% of these claims. That means it either just didn’t process or turned away 85% of applicants. The handbook clearly places the burden of proof on the applicant. Many of these people that were turned away might have questions of legitimacy and may have also posed a security risk.

The U.S. agrees to take in a certain number of refugees each year. The average time it takes from registration as a refugee to approval by U.S. Customs and Immigration is 17 months. Since 9/11/2001, the U.S. has accepted and resettled nearly 750,000 refugees. Over 2,000 Syrian refugees (yep, they’re already here) have already been resettled in the U.S. since the Syrian conflict began. The organization in charge of resettling refugees is the Office of Refugee Resettlement. They work with 9 volunteer organizations (most of them are religious) to aid in the resettlement process. The decision on where to resettle is fairly personalized. They look over a person’s file and decide where they might be best suited. They give consideration to if a person has family in the area and so forth.

The 10,000 refugees out of the 3 million Syrian refugees that the President is proposing to accept are those that have been vetted by the UNHCR and U.S. Customs and Immigration.

The real threat of domestic terrorism is not refugees.

Of the nearly 750,000 refugees that have been resettled in the U.S. since 2001, including the over 2,000 Syrian refugees, 0 (ZERO) have been charged with domestic terrorism. Only 3 of the 750,000 (2 who were Iraqi refugees in Kentucky and an Uzbek refugee) were arrested for international terrorism charges.  You are infinitely safer letting in refugees and living among them than you are walking the streets of a city like Detroit, Oakland, Chicago, or Baltimore.

Since 9/11, there have been 26 domestic acts of violence that have been deemed as terrorist attacks.  19 of those attacks were perpetrated by non-Muslims.  That means that you are 73% more likely to be a victim of a terrorist attack committed by a non-Muslim jihadist.  By the way, none of those attacks were ever committed by a UNHCR vetted refugee.

The attacks of September 11th weren’t even committed by refugees.  The attackers all had visas.  The real threat is just that.  While it takes years to become a refugee and get placed in the U.S. (and there’s no guarantee that someone would even be placed in the U.S.), it takes just 3-6 months to obtain a visa to get into the United States.  If you’re a terrorist, which process are you more likely to choose – one where you have to be vetted a number of times over the course of years with no guarantee that you’ll be placed in the country you want to attack, or would you just apply for a tourist visa to your target country and get it within a few months?  In cases such as the Boston bombers, they came to the U.S. on visas before applying for asylum.  They didn’t go through the vetting process that the Syrian refugees would in order to be granted access into the U.S.  If there’s anything to prove from some of the foreign born Muslims that have gotten arrested for terrorism in the U.S., it’s that our processes for vetting are much less secure when they don’t include the UNHCR and the volunteer organizations.

While ISIS has threatened to infiltrate countries by posing as refugees, it’s important to remember that they’re probably as ignorant as most of the American citizens and politicians on what it takes to become a refugee in the United States.  If a neurosurgeon running for president thinks that there’s no vetting process for refugees, just imagine what ISIS thinks?

What happened in Paris had nothing to do with a vetted Syrian refugee.

When the coordinated attacks occurred in Paris, all of the sudden our fears became realized that an influx of Syrian refugees would result in increased terrorism.  Here’s the problem with that argument.  While we still await all of the details of the terrorist attacks in Paris last week, all of the known assailants were citizens of the European Union.  Some were already on terrorist watch lists. While they did find a Syrian passport on one of the terrorists, officials are certain it is a fake.  Logically speaking, if we were to close our border to people of a particular nationality, it would be more rational to close the border to French and Belgian nationals than it would to Syrians, since they were the ones responsible for the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Like in America, the greater threat of Islamic terrorism is home-grown.  When American servicemen like Major Nidal Hasan can commit terrorist atrocities despite being an American citizen and heavily vetted, we should focus our attention there.  The attacks in Paris, coordinated by French and Belgian citizens are further examples of the danger of home-grown terrorism going unchecked, not of embedded terrorists among Syrian refugees.

Let’s remember that the refugees fleeing Syria are victims of the same terrorism that the Parisians experienced.  Just because they may be Muslims from the Middle East does not mean they are sympathetic to jihad.  They’re running for their lives from jihadists.  Why should we reasonably believe that someone who has their life destroyed by an extremist, radical, jihadist form of Islam would naturally gravitate to that form of religion?

The asylum process in Europe and the refugee process in America are very different.

You’ve probably at least seen one video, which shows a country being overrun by refugees.  You’ve probably read an article about how people are being forced out of their homes by the government to make room for refugees.  The image we have of Europe is that it’s a total free-for-all of unvetted refugees flooding into a country and wreaking havoc on society.

That is not how America accepts refugees.  Think about it.  We admit around 60 – 70,000 refugees every year, and up until reading this, you probably had no idea.  That’s how great our refugee program is.  You didn’t even notice that there were already 2,000 Syrian refugees in America.  Europe, mainly due to its proximity to Syria, is experiencing an entirely different issue with the influx of non-vetted refugees seeking asylum.  That is entirely different than the process of accepting refugees in the United States.

The vast majority of refugees are not Muslim men of fighting age.

You’ve probably heard that most of the refugees are young men of fighting age.  However, when we talk about the process of accepting refugees in the U.S., that couldn’t be further from the truth.  Here’s some data offered by World Relief High Point in North Carolina – one of the refugee settlement organizations.

  • Total number of refugees resettled by World Relief High Point in 2 years: 24
  • Adult males (between 18 and 40 years old): 3 12% of total Syrian arrivals through World Relief High Point
  • Adult females (between 18 and 40 years old): 5 21% of total Syrian arrivals through World Relief High Point
  • Children (0-17): 12 50% of total Syrian arrivals through World Relief High Point
  • Elderly (41+): 4…with 2 being over 70 years old. 17% of total Syrian arrivals through World Relief High Point
  • Religion: 4 Christian (17%) and 20 Suni Muslim (83%)

The majority of refugees reported by this particular organization is mostly children, they’re not all Muslim, and they’re mostly female.

Even considering all of the data currently available by the Department of Homeland Security for 2013, the numbers are fairly evenly divided (not lopsided to one demographic as the stories might suggest).  54% of refugees were male.  28% of all refugees were between the ages of 0-19, 32% were between the ages of 20-34, and 29% were between 35 and over 75.

Refugees are not a drain on the economy.

The idea that 10,000 refugees are going to show up one day and just given all sorts of public assistance while they live in government housing, isn’t quite accurate.  In my city – Lancaster, PA, we welcome about 400 refugees each year (in a city of only 60,000). It’s done very intentionally, and the aim is that a group of volunteers aid the refugees, find them work, help them become acclimated, with the goal that they be self-sufficient in about 3 months. We don’t shove them all in a gym, throw bread and money at them, and let them off on their own. They become contributing members of our society, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, this is exactly what they desire. (Here’s one story of an interaction between a volunteer an a local refugee).

There are about 9 million people on unemployment in the United States.  If these 10,000 refugees never found jobs and just collected unemployment (which is virtually an impossibility), that would only be .11% of all those collecting unemployment.  In fact, the refugee resettlement process has all sorts of programs such as microenterprise development.  Instead of trying to stop refugee programs, we should figure out how to replicate some of its processes to get more people like homeless vets self-sufficient.

Many have noted that we have enough problems with people, like veterans living on the streets, and therefore, we shouldn’t take in refugees.  A major factor of the homeless, particularly veterans, is chemical dependency.  Many are so addicted to alcohol and drugs, that they can’t keep employment or save money.  For refugees coming from predominantly Muslim countries, alcohol and other drugs are generally forbidden and considered impure.  The chances that a Syrian refugee will be living on the streets is much less than an American veteran.

The statistics call for a reasonable and rational response.

The attacks in Paris and the continued violence perpetrated by ISIS remind us that terrorism is a very real threat, and it’s always prudent to take proper precautions to mitigate such threat as much is reasonable.  And while a terrorist could slip through the cracks anywhere, the data clearly shows us that it is much more likely that a terrorist would come into the country through a visa, not through the UNHCR refugee resettlement process.

Furthermore, there have been some disturbing trends of radicalization of individuals who are already in the United States.  Examples like the Boston bombers who radicalized after coming to the U.S. and Major Nidal Hasan demonstrate how even the most vetted individuals can become terrorists.  It’s a reminder that the radicalization of Islam into extreme forms of violence cannot be stopped at borders.  It is an idea that lives in people and gets disseminated through dangerous communities.

What makes the volunteer organizations in the refugee resettlement program so unique is that they ask the community to surround refugees with aid.  This is our opportunity to demonstrate the ideals of American peace and perpetuate it through community.  Most of us will not participate in the war against ISIS through firepower.  But we can confront the dangerous ideas of ISIS by being involved in the lives of those most susceptible to its ideology.  The refugee process not only vets those coming into this country, but it also involves us as citizens in ways that no other program does.

When you fear a refugee, you are giving into the very nature of ISIS’ terrorist threats.  When you accept a Syrian refugee, you are saving them from our common terrorist enemy.  When you interact with them, you are fighting the very ideology that threatens our world in a way that’s more profound and powerful than conventional warfare.


  1. This is so helpful for those of us who have not done our research on the refugee crisis! I’ve volunteered with refugees and, from personal experience, know the friendship, beauty, and lively potential that refugees in America offer to society. Thanks for sharing the facts, helping to dispel fear, and humanizing those whom the news is mostly demonizing.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here