The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) is an important source of protection for thousands of the world’s most vulnerable refugees annually, including those who have lived in protracted situations for years or even decades. The Program has a number of critical strengths, including its size, diversity, and geographic scope. U.S. resettlement processing is a multistep process involving many different actors, including the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Health and Human Services, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and Department of State-funded Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs) overseas. U.S. resettlement processing is a multistep process involving many different actors, including the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Health and Human Services, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and Department of State-funded Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs) overseas.
This fact sheet describes how the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) decides when to expedite processing of a refugee case for resettlement in the United States, and whether to expedite all steps, or only select steps. Rigorous security clearance procedures, the regulatory requirement for a face-to-face interview with all applicants, and enhanced protocols for detecting and treating tuberculosis overseas, all limit the number of urgent protection and/or medical cases that can be processed for resettlement in less than 8-10 weeks from referral to arrival in the United States.
Given these timeframes, the USRAP also seeks ways to move refugee applicants out of harm’s way, when necessary, before final decisions on resettlement are made. For example, PRM has in recent years provided significant funding to UNHCR to establish and operate Emergency Transit Facilities (ETFs) that provide temporary shelter to refugees in several safe areas around the world. ETFs are available for UNHCR-referred cases that cannot be processed in their country of asylum, either because of urgent protection concerns or because resettlement countries are not able to process in the asylum country. PRM works closely with UNHCR and, where appropriate, host governments, on such cases. Urgent protection needs for U.S.-bound cases can also be met through safe houses, protected areas in refugee camps, or movement of a camp-based refugee to another camp or an urban location. In addition, many of these tools could also be available to those individuals who are not likely to be resettled in the United States.
Given the intense resource demands of expedited resettlement processing, PRM limits “all-steps expedited processing” to those individuals whose lives are at serious risk. As mentioned, expedited processing for resettlement in the United States takes a minimum of 8 to 10 weeks from referral to arrival in the United States, compared to 6 to 12 months or more for normal resettlement processing. While the expedited timeframe is significantly shorter, USRAP requirements generally do not allow for more rapid case processing. This period is longer than we would like it to be, but our concerns are tempered by the fact that most U.S. refugee applicants are individuals outside their country of origin and therefore not at immediate risk of persecution. In cases where an applicant faces life-threatening protection scenarios such as imminent deportation back to the country of persecution (refoulement); acute threats from host governments or non-state actors that may result in torture, severe bodily harm or death; or serious life-threatening medical conditions that require immediate treatment unavailable in the country of first asylum, PRM will seek to expedite all remaining steps in the resettlement process. Such cases come to PRM’s attention from a variety of sources, including PRM’s Regional Refugee Coordinators and other U.S. Embassy personnel, RSCs, UNHCR, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and advocates.
In such cases, PRM staff in Washington work closely with the Refugee Coordinator and RSC to expedite all steps of resettlement processing, including, to the extent possible, all required security checks. In such cases, PRM also explores with UNHCR the possible movement of the applicant to an ETF, if appropriate, as well as whether other protection measures are necessary and feasible while undergoing expedited processing. Despite best efforts to expedite a case, security or medical holds can cause delays and/or render the applicant ineligible for U.S. resettlement.
For cases that have not yet been referred to the USRAP, interested parties should carefully consider whether another country might provide more expeditious resettlement. The United States has successfully encouraged other countries to expand their resettlement capacity over the past several years, including for urgent cases. Some countries are able to accept cases on a dossier basis and offer a limited number of individuals resettlement in a matter of days or weeks rather than months.
In some cases, an individual’s protection concerns may not rise to the level described above, but there may be concerns that would lead us to expedite select processing steps in order to hasten departure. Due to the geographic and programmatic diversity of USRAP processing at PRM’s eight RSCs (located in Amman, Bangkok, Damak, Havana, Istanbul, Moscow, Nairobi, and Vienna, with sub-offices in Baghdad, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, and Kuala Lumpur), it is not possible to establish a single set of guidelines governing expedited refugee resettlement processing worldwide for cases that do not face the more dire protection scenarios that would lead us to expedite all processing steps. The local threshold for expediting a case in one location, such as Vienna, may be very different from the threshold in another location, such as Baghdad. Most RSCs are located in countries where host governments, often in concert with UNHCR, are able to provide some degree of temporary protection, but many also conduct processing on a circuit ride basis to countries where such protection is not always present. Some RSCs work primarily with urban refugee populations where many applicants live and work in cities, and some work primarily with refugees in camps – with each scenario posing unique challenges.
It is therefore crucial that PRM’s Refugee Coordinators posted at U.S. embassies, working closely with RSC senior leadership, retain flexibility in determining which cases should be expedited at certain stages, such as RSC pre-screening, DHS interview, and medical screening. Individuals in need of expedited processing at certain steps may include those who: have suffered physical and/or psychological harm that has caused serious debilitation of the individual’s physical and/or mental health; are at risk of arrest, detention, or refoulement in or by the host government in the country of processing; have suffered harassment by an individual or group that the host government in the country of processing is unable or unwilling to stop or mitigate; or have a medical condition that, in the absence of proper treatment, will become life-threatening during anticipated normal processing timeframes.
Refugee Coordinators and RSCs receive information from a variety of sources, including UNHCR, NGOs, and advocates, about the need to expedite steps in certain cases such as those described above. Such cases must be approved for expediting by the Refugee Coordinator and in most instances, it is not raised to the level of PRM in Washington, except when a request is made for expedited processing of a security clearance. In such cases, a Refugee Coordinator could approve including an individual on an earlier RSC or DHS circuit ride than his/her place in the queue would normally warrant; conducting the medical exam prior to DHS interview; and/or expediting the travel packet and flight booking. When certain (but not all) processing steps are expedited, a case could be processed in 3 to 6 months from referral to arrival in the United States, if there are no lengthy security or medical holds.
There will always be some limits to the U.S. Government’s ability to process individuals for resettlement on an expedited basis, and processing timelines cannot be guaranteed for any case. Two types of security checks conducted during overseas refugee processing sometimes cause delays: the security advisory opinion (SAO) and the interagency check (IAC). An individual may experience lengthy delays due to the need to run multiple security checks and some individuals may never clear the required checks. While PRM is able to request expedited processing of both checks, we do so judiciously so as not to significantly delay the processing of the tens of thousands of other cases that are considered each year.
When a refugee case is placed on hold by one or more of the agencies that conduct security clearances due to a name or other biodata match, there is sometimes little that can be done to speed the resettlement process. Although PRM has developed mechanisms for requesting expedited review, and many cases can be expedited, certain cases take time to resolve. PRM often becomes aware of the complicating issue after several weeks of processing have elapsed, delaying the expected processing timeline further.
PRM is working with other U.S. government agencies on efforts to ensure that refugee security screening does not unnecessarily limit our capacity to provide critical protection, while preventing entry of those who would pose security threats. PRM will continue its engagement with others in the U.S. government on this critical issue.
Finally, to address the growing public health problem of drug resistant tuberculosis and to improve foreign-born tuberculosis control in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2007 issued revised Technical Instructions for tuberculosis screening and treatment (TB TI); these are being phased in around the world. Currently most refugee applicants are screened according to the TB TI. In USRAP processing locations where the TB TI have been implemented, a higher percentage of individuals are required to undergo sputum culturing because of suspect TB. Cultures take 6-8 weeks to be reported as negative, and PRM may not know until several weeks into processing whether an individual will need to wait for culture results.
For these reasons, despite best efforts to ensure expedited processing, some cases with security and/or medical hold cannot be processed within these expedited timeframes.
In all cases, PRM seeks to work with host governments, UNHCR and other partners to identify available protection measures to minimize risks to refugee applicants during the processing period. PRM will continue to work with partners and others to identify ways to enhance the USRAP’s collective ability to move refugee applicants out of harm’s way as quickly as possible, and to clarify existing procedures whenever possible.