America’s Visa Waiver Program (VWP) is coming under renewed official criticism out of concern that terrorists could use it to enter the United States. Some critics argue that the VWP should be scrapped altogether.
A report by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that more than a third of VWP countries are not meeting the security requirements.
“In 2013, nationals from VWP countries were responsible for more than $90 billion in travel and tourism expenditures in the United States,” the GAO notes in a report. “However, some members of Congress have expressed concern that foreign terrorist fighters might attempt to exploit the program to travel to the United States, creating a potential terrorist threat.
“The Department of State has reported that in recent years, thousands of foreign terrorist fighters – including many from VWP countries – have travelled to countries such as Syria and Iraq to train with, support, or join extremist groups, such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), that are hostile to the United States.”
Last December, the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to tighten restrictions on travel to the US by citizens of the 38 nations allowed to enter the country under the VWP. The measure requires visitors from VWP countries, which include Australia and much of Western Europe, to obtain a visa to travel to the US if they have been to Syria, Iraq, Iran or Sudan during the past five years.
Countries participating in the VWP are meant to share vital information on the criminal history of those wishing to enter the US and on the identities of suspected terrorists. This data can then be cross-checked when travellers apply for a visa or VWP waiver.
Some countries are not complying with the requirements, potentially putting at risk the VWP, which lets tourists and business travellers from participating countries fill out a basic online form to enter the US.
US law requires that VWP countries agree to share information regarding whether their citizens and nationals travelling to the US “represent a threat to the security or welfare of the United States or its citizens”.
US authorities note that terrorists do not just come from the Middle East – increasingly they come from places like Belgium, France and Britain. Some residents and citizens of countries in Europe (and Australia, for that matter) are loyal to jihadist groups rather than to their own countries. Some have been radicalised after visiting Syria.
A report by the US Government Accountability Office found “more than a third of VWP countries are not sharing terrorist identity information” or criminal history.
Critics of the VWP say Congress should act to compel visitors from all countries in Africa, Europe or Asia, including the Middle East, to obtain visas. Any military age males from countries with significant Muslim populations should require a visa and should additionally be heavily vetted, they argue.
The US Government Accountability Office does not go that far, but it says VWP countries must fully implement their agreements, to help prevent foreign terrorist fighters from attempting to exploit the VWP to travel to the US.
The US Government Accountability Office makes the following two recommendations to the Secretary of Homeland Security:
- Specify time frames for working with VWP countries to institute the additional VWP security requirements, including the requirement that the countries fully implement agreements to share information about known or suspected terrorists through the countries’ HSPD-6 arrangements [Homeland Security Presidential Directive 6 regarding screening information against terrorism] and PCSC [Combating Serious Crime] agreements with the United States.
- Take steps to improve DHS’s timeliness in reporting to Congress, within the statutory time frame, the departments determination of whether each VWP country should continue participating in the program and any effects of the country’s participation on U.S. law enforcement and security interests.
Written by Peter Needham