More than 10,000 international refugees have found their way to Washington state in the last five years, according to the state Department of Social and Health Services, and their numbers appear to be growing.
While the issue of Syrian refugees and security concerns over potential ties to the Islamic State have dominated headlines this week, the numbers show that just 28 people have been relocated in Washington from the war-torn nation since October 2011.
Meanwhile, thousands of refugees from other war-torn countries have been relocated in the state during that same time period. In the last five years, more than 21 percent of refugees in Washington have come from Iraq, or 2,231 Iraqis total. More than 15 percent, or 1,580 total, have come from Somalia.
Refugees from those two nations are followed by 1,550 from Myanmar, 875 from Bhutan, 729 from Ukraine, 611 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 558 from Afghanistan, 463 from Iran, 317 from Eritrea and 209 from Moldova. None are known to reside in Yakima County, state refugee coordinator Sarah Peterson said.
The majority of refugees received from October 2014 through September 2015 — about 66 percent — were relocated in King County. About 16 percent of refugees were relocated in Spokane County, Peterson said, and about 7 percent in the Tri-Cities area.
It takes about 18 to 24 months for the U.S. State Department to vet refugees before granting them admission to the United States, according to the department’s website.
Talk of whether to accept refugees, namely those from Syria, has become increasingly politicized following the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday that claimed at least 129 lives. The Islamic State, based in Syria and Iraq, claimed responsibility for the attack.
The issue entered the state’s 2016 gubernatorial race Monday with Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and Republican challenger Bill Bryant both weighing in on the issue. Inslee denounced anti-Muslim rhetoric in the wake of the attacks and said Washington would not interfere with the relocation of Syrian immigrants in the state.
“Washington will continue to be a state that welcomes those seeking refuge from persecution, regardless of where they come from or the religion they practice,” Inslee said in a news release Monday.
Bryant, in a prepared statement, said, “We should not let our compassion blind us” to potential safety concerns.
“We should act compassionately only after it is clear strict screenings have been completed,” Bryant said.
Then on Wednesday, 14 Republican state senators signed a letter calling on Inslee to pause potential resettlement efforts until more is known about the vetting process at the federal level. They included Sens. Curtis King, R-Yakima; Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside; and Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake.
“We ask that you do not simply acquiesce to a policy that in light of recent events in Paris may constitute a clear and present threat to the safety of our people,” the letter reads.
State Department officials have said about half of the 2,500 Syrian refugees who have been admitted nationwide are children, and about 25 percent are adults older than age 60.
The number of refugees arriving in the state from 2014 to 2015 was 2,915 — 35 percent greater than the 2,162 refugees who relocated here between 2011 and 2012. Peterson said the state is expecting more than 3,000 to arrive between October of this year and September 2016.
In the last five years, the state has accepted 10,347 refugees from 50 countries. Since 1975, it has taken in more than 130,000 refugees from more than 70 nations, Peterson said.