Refugees on Hold

A sharp cutoff in refugee admissions represents one of the lesser noted repercussions of September’s terrorist attacksa repercussion with dangerous ramifications for the more than 20,000 refugees who had already been approved for entry into the United States before the attacks. Many were fleeing persecution in their own countries, and now, because movement in the pipeline to safety has slowed to a trickle, they remain at risk in temporary-asylum countries or in refugee camps. Their vulnerability, especially for people from Middle Eastern nationsAfghans who fled the Taliban, for example, and Iraqis fleeing Saddam Hussein’s regimeis high. The same is true for Africans trying to escape conflicts in countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia.

For two months after the attacks, the shutdown on admissions was total. Then in late November, President Bush signed the so-called presidential determinationa decision made annually that establishes the number of refugee admissions for the new fiscal year. The number was set at 70,000, down by 10,000 from fiscal 2001. And yet, given the drastic nature of the slowdown, the State Department itself has said that as few as 45,000 may be brought to our shores during the current fiscal year.


Bill Frelick, director of the nonprofit U.S. Committee for Refugees in Washington, D.C., has described the situation as both ironic and tragic. It is ironic because thousands of legal immigrantsi.e., non-refugeescontinue to pour daily into the United States. They come with student, visitors’ and other kinds of visas, are subjected to relatively little questioning and pass easily on to their destinations. Adding to the sad irony, it was precisely through such easily obtained visas that a number of those responsible for the terrorist attacks managed to enter the country and carry out their destructive plans. And yet, as Mr. Frelick told America, the most highly scrutinized part of the U.S. immigration systemthe refugee programis what the government has seized upon as requiring a special security review. The review has been completed, but the snail’s pace of refugee admissions makes it clear that suspicions remain and that delays are continuing. The U.S. Committee for Refugees has reported that during the first quarter of fiscal year 2002, which began on Oct. 1, fewer than 800 refugees had come here through the program. During the same period last year over 14,000 were admitted.

The negative repercussions of this dramatic slowdown go far beyond the question of the refugees’ safety. Nongovernmental agencies in the United States that assist refugees in the complex resettlement process after their arrival have also been negatively affected. But the N.G.O.’s, many of them operated by faith-based groups like Catholic Charities, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services and Jewish Family Services, depend on government funding for their work. The State Department provides initial short-term grants to cover refugees’ immediate expenses for food and shelter after their arrival on our shores. Then the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the Department of Health and Human Services awards grants to the states, which in turn subcontract with N.G.O.’s in local communities. With money from these grants, the N.G.O.’s can engage in more sustained and long-term efforts to help the refugees become integrated into their new places of residence. These efforts include English language training and job counseling.

The government funds, however, are allotted on a per capita basis according to the number of refugees admitted. Now that the number of incoming refugees has slowed to a trickle, the bulk of the funding on which N.G.O.’s depend is evaporating. As a consequence, a number of them are being forced to lay off trained personnel, whono longer receiving the paychecks on which they depend for their livelihoodwill be obliged to seek employment elsewhere. And once established in other lines of work, they may never come back, even when (and if) the refugee flow into the United States returns to pre-Sept. 11 levels. Given the time and expense involved in training new employees, when N.G.O. infrastructures have been weakened in this way, they cannot be restored overnight. Mr. Frelick observed that these infrastructures have been gradually built up and strengthened since the mid-1970’s.

The repercussions may go even further. Kevin Appleby, director of the Migration and Refugee Policy Office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, pointed out to America that, given its position as a world leader in refugee protection, the United States’ abdication of its responsibilities in this area will not only mean more suffering for refugees approved for admission here; it could also lead to a reduction by other countries of support for refugee protection. Legislators in Washington should summon the political will to help bring an end to this crisis in refugee admissions.

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