Oxfam America wants more refugees. But some warn of radical jihadist infiltration.

WGBH News
refugee camp

A Syrian refugee camp in Cappadocia, Turkey.

Tens of thousands of war-weary refugees and migrants are on the move from Syria to Europe. And soon some will be coming to the United States per order of President Barack Obama. But "not nearly enough," said representatives of Oxfam America.

The organization had asked the US to open its door even wider. The announcement by the State Department that it plans to increase the number of visas for refugees from 70,000 per year to 100,000 by 2017 comes on the heels of appeals by Oxfam and other US-based non-governmental organizations. Syrians may be the principal beneficiaries of expanded refugee numbers to the US.

Oxfam America is part of a consortium of international humanitarian organizations in the US that implored the White House two weeks ago to increase the number of Syrian refugees it plans to let into the country from 10,000 to 100,000.  

“In recent years, we’ve been taking in about 70,000 refugees from around the world,'' said Noah Gottschalk, Oxfam's senior policy adviser for Syria. "We’ve accepted several million people over the last few decades as refugees from around the world. So in that context 10,000 is really just a drop in the bucket.”

Refugees in the US in recent years have come from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and Iraq, with just a trickle from Syria.

With the new policy, the White House will now likely accept more Syrian refugees than they’ve agreed to so far. The United Nations has supplied the US with the names of nearly 17,000 Syrians for possible resettlement consideration in the US.

But some, notably Rep. Peter King (R-NY) the head of the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, have warned of the prospect of terrorism fomented by underground members of radical Islamist groups. 

Veryan Khan, editorial director of the anti-terrorism research organization TRAC, tells WGBH that there have been six reported incidents of the Islamic State trying to infiltrate Europe by hiding among refugees.

“We’re hearing stories from these private smugglers that they are smuggling small amounts of jihadists returning home.”

Khan says the US could face a similar problem with jihadists trying to enter the US under the guise of refugees. But Oxfam America’s Gottschalk says the threat level is low.

“A whole number of government agencies are confident that they’re not going to pose a threat, and I think what’s really important to remember is that the people who are eligible for resettlement are people who’ve often had to flee from those very groups themselves from the violence that they’ve seen in their country. “  

Khan doesn't disagree.

“It cannot be overstated enough, the proportion of cases that have been reported of known Islamic State fighters hidden within the migrant community is minuscule in comparison to the numbers of legitimate migrants who are fleeing a war zone.” 

But Khan adds that at the same time the threat cannot be ignored.

As many as 2,000 Syrian refugees could eventually be resettled in Massachusetts in places like Norwood, which has an established Syrian-American community. Oxfam America representatives said the US refugee vetting process is so strict that there would be little chance that anyone would pose a danger. 

A version of this story first appeared on WGBHNews.org.