Refugees at Risk

This year is the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees—a body of international law aimed at ensuring the rights of people fleeing persecution and civil unrest. Overshadowing the celebratory note appropriate to such an occasion, however, is the fact that these rights have become increasingly threatened as the wealthier nations have shown themselves more and more hostile toward those who try to reach their shores. This dark reality underlies the annual survey of the U.S. Committee for Refugees, a nongovernmental agency based in Washington, D.C.

The number of refugees has risen by one million over the past two years, to 14.5 million. Bill Frelick, the committee’s director of policy, said in presenting the survey earlier this summer that the number would be much higher if people longing to escape their conflict-ridden countries were actually able to escape. Because of restrictive laws passed by Western nations, however, as well as greater barriers to leaving raised by conflict countries themselves, many who wish to leave are trapped within the borders of their own country—an astounding 20 million. Driven from their homes, they endure harsh conditions in poorly supplied camps, often a prey to the very human rights violations from which their states should be protecting them. Sudan’s government, for example, bombs its own citizens in the south, as well as humanitarian aid sites. Eighty percent of internally displaced people and refugees worldwide are women and children.


Less than generous financial support by wealthy nations for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has compounded the difficulty of aiding both groups. Last year’s shortfall in funding led to the loss of 700 staff members and a consequent reduction in humanitarian aid. In terms of contributions per capita, Norway, Denmark and Sweden led the way. Richest of all countries though we are, the United States ranks a disappointing ninth, and President Bush has even proposed a $5 million cut in refugee assistance. At their summer meeting in Atlanta, the U.S. bishops noted that the little we do allocate in overseas assistance to refugees has not kept pace with inflation. On a wider level, they expressed concern that the U.S. commitment to refugee protection has waned, pointing out that—despite rising numbers of refugees—since 1992 refugee admissions to the United States fell by 42 percent.

Other signs of a waning commitment to helping refugees include our increased reliance on the use of mandatory detention of bona fide asylum seekers. Instead of being paroled into the community, where they may have friends and relatives who are in the country legally, in some districts of the Immigration and Naturalization Service they are held behind bars for months and even years before their cases are adjudicated. Some find themselves confined in remote county jails, housed with prisoners facing felony charges. Heightened use of so-called expedited exclusion has added to the current exclusionary thrust. This procedure went into effect with Congress’s 1996 immigration act. Previously, immigrants arriving at ports of entry without valid travel documents could have their cases heard by immigration judges. Now, however, low-level I.N.S. officials can make an immediate determination of the validity of their status as persons with a credible fear of persecution and—if they so choose—can order deportation on the spot.

Restrictive measures by Europeannations have taken a still more stringent turn. One of the contributors to the survey, Joan Fitzpatrick—a professor of law at the University of Washington—comments in her article on what she calls European intolerance of asylum seekers. Ironically, this coincides with significant decreases in the rate of asylum applications since the early 1990’s. Adding to asylum seekers’ burdens is an underlying view that they are semi-criminals. The increased barriers that prevent their admission to Western countries have led some to turn to smugglers for help. As a result they have become tainted in the public mind with the criminality of those who in fact are victimizing them for profit. Our own heightened dependence on mandatory detention has added to this overall criminalizing perception.

In a resolution passed at their summer meeting, the U.S. bishops insist that the United States, for its own part, “can and must do more for refugees through increased support for refugees overseas and increased admissions into the United States.” In addition to displaying greater generosity in financial contributions to groups like the U.N.H.C.R., a further proactive step would be for Congress to pass the Refugee Protection Act. Introduced in the Senate on a bipartisan basis by Patrick Leahy (Democrat of Vermont) and Samuel Brownback (Republican of Kansas), the act would drastically reduce the use of expedited removal and mandatory detention. Passage of this act, and more generous funding assistance, would be a way to celebrate in a worthy manner this 50th anniversary of an important United Nations convention.

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