(Washington, DC) – Recently announced plans by more than half of US governors to turn away Syrian refugees admitted by the United States tarnish the country’s reputation as a place where resettled refugees can find safety. Authority over admitting refugees rests with the federal government, not with the states, though individual states can make the acceptance process more difficult. 

"Resettled refugees from Syria have fled persecution and violence, and undergone rigorous security screening by the US government," said Alison Parker, co-director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch. "The governors’ announcements amount to fear-mongering attempts to block Syrians from joining the generous religious groups and communities who step forward to welcome them."

In September 2015 President Barack Obama pledged to admit through resettlement an additional 10,000 refugees from Syria during 2016. That is an increase over the 1,300 admitted through the program in 2015. Over 4 million Syrians have fled the country since the conflict began there in 2011.

A family sits on the shore of the Greek island of Lesbos wrapped in thermal blankets after journeying from Turkey aboard a rubber boat.  October 11, 2015.

© 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch

Following the deadly attacks in Paris on November 13 by the extremist group Islamic State, known as ISIS, the governors of at least 24 US states declared they will refuse to accept resettled Syrian refugees. Those states include Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. One of these governors, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, had in September expressed support for a compassionate response, calling on the state to do its "fair share" in the global refugee crisis.

"The attacks in Paris show the terrible brutality these refugees fled," Parker said. "Now more than ever US states should want to signal their courage and resolve in the face of terrorism by stepping up their efforts to host those screened and admitted by the federal government."

US and international human rights law prohibit discrimination on the basis of national origin and provide everyone their right to freedom of movement, Human Rights Watch said. Banning a single nationality from accessing needed services, or unnecessarily limiting their movements inside the US, would violate these principles.

Refugees of any nationality who are resettled in the United States undergo several layers of screening before coming to the United States. Those include interviews by the US Department of Homeland Security, and security checks by the Department of Defense, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and multiple intelligence agencies. The process can take several years, often while the refugee waits in difficult and substandard conditions.

"Instead of focusing on keeping refugees out, the US should do its utmost to screen refugees efficiently to cut down on backlogs and ensure timely resettlement," Parker said.