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February 20, 2002

Asylum News 5

Refugee Resettlement Slowly Resumes
  • At House Hearings, Professor Argues Asylum-Seekers Need Not be Detained
  • Two Months After Program Resumes, Refugees Are Only Trickling In
The U.S. refugee resettlement program, shut down after September 11, resumed on December 11 but it is still only a faint shadow of what it has been for the last 25 years, when the United States has accepted an annual average of about 90,000 refugees. During the first four months of this fiscal year, in which the Bush Administration has committed to accepting 70,000 refugees, only 2,790 actually arrived, according to the Refugee Data Center. That is just 4 percent of the annual goal - although one-third of the year has elapsed. Thousands of people remain stranded abroad, including about 20,000 who had been approved to come to the United States before September 11. Part of the delay is caused by new security measures. All refugees are subject to extra security checks before they can travel, and they must now be fingerprinted upon arrival, using new machines that are available at only four U.S. airports. The fingerprinting has been taking so long that there is a limit of 30 refugees per flight, to avoid long airport lines - further restricting the number of people who can arrive each day. Alarmed that U.S. refugee resettlement seems to be eroding, refugee advocates have pointed out that with certain efforts and planning, the United States could admit more refugees without cutting corners on security. The decline in refugee admissions this year, they say, is not only a consequence of September 11, but also part of a long-time trend. Some U.S. officials in charge of refugee resettlement have been dragging their feet for years, according to refugee advocates, so that the United States has fallen short of the refugee resettlement target set by the President each year for more than a decade. In fiscal year 2000, for example, the maximum was 90,000 refugees, but only 72,515 actually arrived. This year the shortfall could be much higher. That would be tantamount to sending lifeboats from a sinking ship with thousands of empty seats, in the phrase of Merrill Smith, Washington representative of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. U.S. Officials Promise They Will Try to Meet the Target of 70,000 Refugees In January, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State P. Michael McKinley told a group of refugee organization officials that he believed it would not be possible to resettle 70,000 refugees this year, and that the Department would divert $38 million that would have been used for resettlement. But on February 1, Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner James Ziglar said that the INS remained committed to bringing 70,000 refugees this year, and Arthur "Gene" Dewey, the newly-appointed top State Department official in charge of refugees, echoed Ziglar a few days later. The $38 million was not diverted after all. Senate holds hearing to Investigate Slow Pace of Refugee Resettlement On February 12, the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee on Immigration heard Ziglar and Dewey repeat their pledges, when both officials testified at a hearing entitled, "Empty Seats on the Lifeboat: Are There Problems With the U.S. Refugee Program?" Although he said refugee resettlement "resumed slowly, probably too slowly" in December and January, INS Commissioner Ziglar said he would make "an all-American college try" to reach the 70,000 target. He said INS will soon train 60 new people to go abroad and interview refugees who seek resettlement. In September, INS recalled all the officers who had traveled to conduct such interviews, for security reasons. Without INS interviews, refugees cannot be approved to come to the United States. In his own testimony, Dewey said "it may take a miracle" to bring 70,000 refugees this year, but he said the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), which he has just taken over, is committed to making the effort. He promised Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), the subcommittee chairman, and Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS), who attended and seemed to take a keen interest, that he would "keep a running watch with you" on refugee resettlement, and that there would be "total transparency." A panel of refugee advocates testified next, making blunt criticisms of the refugee program and specific suggestions for improvement. U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) director Bill Frelick called for changes to the State Department's system, in which refugees can only be accepted if they fit into certain categories that are ranked in order of priority. Priority one or P1 is meant to help refugees in acute need because of , for example, medical trouble or imminent danger, but it has become a bloated catchall category, Frelick said. He recommended that it be limited to cases that are truly urgent. The second category, P2, is "refugee groups of special concern to the United States." "With more than 14 million refugees in the world today, "Frelick said, "it is nothing short of scandalous" that the United States recognizes only four such categories, and that all of them have been on the list for more than a decade. The categories of "special concern" all have Cold War origins, in other words. The relevant countries are Cuba, the former Soviet Union, Vietnam, and Iran. Frelick made many detailed recommendations, specifically to protect refugee women-at-risk, to protect refugees who have been persecuted because of their ties to the United States, to protect disabled refugees and survivors of torture and violence, and to promote family reunification among refugees. Lenny Glickman, chairman of the Refugee Council USA, a coalition of refugee resettlement agencies and other refugee advocate groups including Human Rights First, bluntly criticized U.S. government officials in charge of resettlement, especially at the State Department's PRM. "I have never seen such an example of a government bureau failing to meet both the President's commitment and the will of the American people," he said. "With 14 million refugees in the world, why has it been so difficult for the United States to find 70,000 to resettle?" The answer, Glickman said, is that PRM has made the process long, bureaucratic, and off-limits to most of the refugees in the world. Even a P1 refugee in desperate straits must complete three lengthy forms and undergo four interviews, so that the process tests for "the survival of the most patient," he said. Like Frelick, Glickman suggested that the priority categories be expanded, so that more of the world's refugees can qualify.