'Celebrating' World Refugee Day?

The refugee crisis emerging in Syria as that nation disintegrates into outright civil war highlights the plight of refugees worldwide, according to officials with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services. Not only is that worsening conflict producing its own refugees, now spilling over Syrian borders into Lebanon and Turkey, but the violence has added to the suffering of thousands of Iraqi Christians who had taken refuge in Syria since the U.S. Invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many of the Iraqis, said the U.S.C.C.B.'s Anastasia Brown, Director of the M.R.S.'s Office of Resettlement Services, have been waiting for years in Syria for relocation to Europe or the United States. Now they face the stark choice of remaining in the increasing chaos of Syria in the hope of an emergency evacuation or returning to the danger and uncertainty they had fled in Iraq.

Iraqi refugees are hardly alone in confronting such desperate choices. As the world prepares to celebrate, if that’s the right word for it, another World Refugee Day tomorrow, June 20, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reports that in 2011, 4.3 million people were displaced after major crises in Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and elsewhere and a record 781,299 fled their countries of origin. The latter group, according to the U.N. are in acute need of resettlement but only a small fraction of these dislocated people, about 1 percent, will actually achieve resettlement. Worldwide, 42.5 million people ended 2011 classified either as refugees, internally displaced or seeking asylum.

Historically the United States has been one of the nations most welcoming to refugees, accepting more than 3 million since 1975. The U.S.C.C.B. has been responsible for resettling one-third of them, says M.R.S. Policy and Public Affairs Director of Kevin Appleby, making it the world’s largest refugee resettlement agency. Most of that work is done with funding from the federal government. Brown reports that funding relationship appears solid, despite the ongoing confrontation between the Obama administration and the U.S. bishops over religious liberty concerns. Her overarching agency, M.R.S., in fact was one of the flashpoints in that dispute. “We have not seen any spillover in refugee resettlement from that,” Brown said.

Given the growing numbers of refugees worldwide, the U.S.C.C.B. officials say the United States could do better, both by accepting more refugees and by streamlining its “misaligned” entry procedures. The office has asked that U.S. Refugee annual quotas be raised. In recent years they have typically averaged no more than 80,000 and in fact this year and next are expected to decline slightly to 76,000 and 74,000 annually. “We have never thought that [80,000] was sufficient,” said Brown. And that figure itself has proved illusory. Owing to heightened security procedures and complicated bureaucracies, last year only 56,000 refugees were accepted and this year, Brown expects no more than 54,000 to gain entry. According to Brown, security clearances for incoming refugees are “conducted by different entities at different times with different expiration dates.”

“There are people who are cleared and cleared and cleared,” she said, but don’t achieve a U.S. placement “because different parts of the process time out.” That has meant stranding thousands of Iraqi Christians who had already been accepted by various federal agencies in Syria when they could have been removed from harm’s way years ago. Appleby argued that an emergency evacuation plan for such refugees should be contemplated. He added that the U.S. bishops have strongly advocated that the United States do more to assist Iraqi Christians dislocated by the war, including creating a special quota of 25,000 annually just for this population, but so far “the administration has not made any special allowances for Iraqis.”

“The government hasn’t responded in a way that we’ve seen in other wars that we’ve been involved in,” Appleby said. “After Vietnam, for instance, we were able to take a large number of Vietnamese refugees.... I’d say they’ve dropped the ball on this one.” Appleby said his office was now working with Congress to bring more attention to the plight of Iraq’s stranded Christians.

Little Rock Bishop Anthony Taylor, an M.R.S. Committee member, recalled that the Holy Family were once refugees in Egypt in a part of the world where many contemporary refugees now seeks a safe respite from political turmoil and violence. Much more could be done for these Iraqis, and other refugees, in the United States, said Bishop Taylor, with the right combination of a little bureaucratic creativity and the renewed political will to help.

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