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September 11
A Year Later

Security concerns stymie refugee resettlement

New York

When hijackers cut down the lives of some 3,000 persons in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, they also cut short the dreams of thousands of refugees once destined to experience freedom from terror, torture, famine, war and persecution within the borders of the United States.

Security concerns in the wake of the terrorist attacks have stranded thousands of refugees in squalid camps and overcrowded urban “safe houses.” Dreams of being reunited with family members already in this country were dashed last autumn for some 22,000 refugees -- already in the pipeline for resettlement in this country -- as the U.S. government vowed to use every legal means to prevent further terrorist activity.

At the start of the 2002 fiscal year on Oct. 1, 2001, President Bush failed to sign the “Presidential Determination” that allows an allotted number of refugees to enter the United States. The virtual moratorium lasted until Nov. 21 when Bush issued an order allowing 70,000 to be resettled in fiscal 2002, 10,000 less than the number set in 2001.

But with barely a month of the current fiscal year remaining, only 20,414 refugees have been permitted to enter. Mark Franken, who directs migration and refugee services for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the slowdown “extremely serious.”

It is “particularly desperate” for women and others in Afghanistan who had been cleared for entry prior to Sept. 11, 2001. “They are virtually walking around with a tattoo on their forehead, announcing that they were headed for the United States,” Franken told NCR.

The Catholic church has resettled one-third of the 2.65 million refugees who have come to America’s shores since 1975. The bishops’ migration and refugee services office works through 106 dioceses to receive and place refugees. Most diocesan reception and placement programs receive an annual budget from the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference. The refugee work of the bishops’ office, in turn, is largely funded by the State Department.

Women and children comprise the majority of the world’s 12 million refugees and 5.3 million internally displaced persons. Besides being homeless, many of them face physical and sexual assaults both within and outside the camps. Refugee women have testified that many times their husbands have become despondent and sometimes violent when unable to provide for their families. Some refugee women, without jobs and with little education, have resorted to prostitution in order to meet their children’s most basic needs.

Traditionally, the United States resettles the largest number of refugees, followed by European states, Canada and other nations. But in the aftermath of Sept. 11, Britain, Germany and Australia tightened their immigration laws, and Denmark -- once a haven for refugees -- also adopted stricter asylum regulations.

The terrorist attacks must not be used as an excuse by states to turn their backs on or to shirk their international obligation to protect those fleeing terror and persecution, said Jesuit Fr. Lluis Magrina, the Rome-based international director of Jesuit Refugee Service. Anti-terrorism legislation approved in the United States since Sept. 11 has allowed for prolonged detention with limited judicial review of “non-citizens,” he said, including refugees and asylum seekers.

Refugees languish

Refugees find themselves in a “Catch-22,” said Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Wenski of Miami. “The Immigration and Naturalization Service is not going into areas of high security risk, but that’s where they’re going to find most refugees,” he told NCR.

Wenski, who heads the bishops’ Committee on Migration, and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, underscored their concerns at a meeting with Attorney General John Ashcroft last December.

Refugees now languish in limbo, striving to survive day by day in habitats that are often hostile with inadequate food, water and medicine. Their “hope is being diminished,” said Franken, who also attended the meeting.

Americans are “rightly concerned” that the INS has safeguards in place “to screen people who’d come here to harm us,” he said. Revelations that the INS issued visas to terrorists after they had died have embarrassed the agency and increased public anxiety.

“But you’d have to be a pretty dumb terrorist to use the refugee program to get into the United States. Refugees are already the most screened of any immigrants arriving,” Franken said.

Before being X-rayed, fingerprinted and photographed to pass the State Department’s security check, applicants for asylum need to undergo an extensive interview to see whether they qualify for refugee status. If the refugee has family in the United States, he or she must file an affidavit of relationship. An agency must be found to sponsor the refugee, and the local relative must be notified before the refugee can enter the country.

Previously the State Department relied on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to assess applicants. However, the commissioner lacks sufficient infrastructure worldwide for the United States to depend on it. Franken said that since February the INS has been sending its officers to do on-site interviews in camps and holding areas, often in dangerous countries, thus further slowing the flow.

Even before Sept. 11, Franken observed “a kind of disconnect” between the political will to resettle refugees and the mechanism needed to identify and process those eligible for entry. Part of the bureaucratic maze has occurred because “those processing the refugees have not yet adjusted to the new world order,” he said.

Previous refugees came chiefly from Southeast Asia or the former Soviet states. Now millions have had to flee or have been displaced from their homes by conflicts in Afghanistan, Burundi, Colombia and Congo, prompting the State Department to examine not only individuals, but also the facility where they were first adjudicated and held.

Franken has yet to see what he called the “presidential heightened awareness list. … No one can get this list,” he said. He said he presumes it includes countries in the Middle East, the Near East and probably Cuba and North Korea. To date 43 percent of the refugees resettled in the United States this year have come from Russia, the majority of them Catholics, Jews and Pentecostals who fled religious persecution.

The State Department seems willing to look at alternative gatekeepers now that it is no longer depending exclusively on the U.N. commissioner for refugees. Recently Franken brokered negotiations between the State Department and the International Catholic Migration Commission and Jesuit Refugee Service. He serves on the governing board of the International Catholic Migration Commission, based in Geneva, Switzerland.

Half century of service

Because of its half century of service to refugees in some 40 nations, the State Department long ago designated the International Catholic Migration Commission as the fiscal and administrative supervisor of the Refugee Data Center in Manhattan. According to Livia Farkas, who has directed the office and its 34 employees since 1977, the center will close at the end of August and be moved to Roslyn, Va., where it will be nearer to the State Department. It will be run there by Computer Science Corporation, a contractor to the federal government.

In an Aug. 6 meeting with Michael McKinley, assistant secretary of state with the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, Franken raised the issue of the center’s closing and of not knowing when the new center will open. Franken is particularly concerned that meetings that occurred at the center every Wednesday over the past 23 years will end. Representatives from 10 religious and secular voluntary agencies gathered weekly to review recently received refugee cases and determine which agency would resettle each applicant.

“Yet again this shows mismanagement. This was an avoidable delay,” Franken said. Since learning two years ago that the center would shut down in 2002, the collective agencies wrote to the State Department asking that it create continuity. “But they blew us off.”

Franken said he is “befuddled” and wonders whether it is “ignorance or lack of will” that has so threatened the future for refugees. “It doesn’t take a genius to see that if you have a disruption of services, you must have an alternative in place to avoid a complete shutdown of the flow.”

The Rev. Keith D. Ingle, who heads Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, is convinced that “nothing is going to change. It doesn’t serve the Bush administration to do anything.” Refugee totals are the lowest they’ve been in 15 years, he told NCR. Three years ago, the Dakota agency resettled 600 refugees -- including many so-called “lost boys” from Sudan. Last year its numbers fell to 282. The agency has been sent only 37 placements so far this year.

While most new immigrants are students and business people, “the INS has no good handle on how to control them. The one small piece of the immigration flow they can control is refugees,” Ingle said. That’s why “we won’t see it opening up.”

Ingle compared the government’s failure to meet even half of its goal of 70,000 refugees by Sept. 30 to the “equivalent to sending lifeboats with empty seats away from a sinking ship. … Our country has the opportunity to rescue 0.5 percent of the world’s refugees and offer them hope for a new life,” he said.

Recently Congress held hearings on the refugee crisis, referring to the hearing by Ingle’s term: “empty seats on the lifeboat.” Still the ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is pessimistic that anything will be forthcoming. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who heads the judiciary committee, “has his heart in it, but he’s one of the dying dinosaurs of liberalism,” Ingle said. While the lone congressman from Dakota is supportive, “refugees are not the highest priority of any politician.”

Ingle, a 25-year veteran of refugee work for the church across the nation, said he believes that if the economy improves and there are no more terrorist incidents, the numbers of refugees admitted to the United States will rise. “It’s a cycle. Whether it goes up in one year or five, we don’t know.” But if the numbers keep falling, he said he would be forced to cut his staff from 10 to two or three.

Assuming the risk

Similar problems are facing other refugee organizations, though not Catholic ones, Franken said. Unlike agencies that fund on a per capita basis, “we assume the risk nationally.” For the most part, he said, the Catholic network has been sustained by specific government funding considerations. But no one knows what will happen in 2003. We’re holding our breath.”

Franken pointed to his recent meeting with McKinley as a reason for hope. Franken said McKinley is “personally and professionally committed to make it happen.”

Although “the government’s overarching concern since Sept. 11 is security,” the Catholic bishops are convinced that “we can have both security and an increased flow of refugees,” Franken said. To that end, representatives of the bishops’ migration committee have been urging members of Congress to speed refugee entry and family reunification. The bishops are advocating that the refugee slots not filled by Oct. 1 be added to the number authorized for the following 12 months.

If that happens, it could well mean 105,000 to 115,000 refugees needing resettlement in fiscal 2003. But it’s a task Catholic agencies are prepared for, Franken said. He noted that in 1980 the church found places for more than 132,000 persons during the emergency exodus of Vietnamese “boat people” that followed the Vietnam War.

“Given the millions of refugees and the resources of this country, we should be able to do it,” said Wenski.

At a glance

Security concerns following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have stranded thousands of refugees who were waiting for resettlement in the United States, many to reunite with family members already in this country. After nearly a two-month moratorium on allowing refugees to enter, President Bush issued an order allowing 70,000 to be resettled in the 2002 fiscal year. But with barely a month left before the order expires Sept. 30, only 20,414 refugees have been permitted to enter.

The slowdown of the already difficult asylum process has left refugees in limbo, surviving in camps with inadequate food, water and medicine, and threats of violence.

Changes in the process of assessing applicants have further slowed the flow. The State Department no longer relies exclusively on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to assess applicants on-site. Since February, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has sent its own officers to conduct interviews in camps and holding areas. In addition, the New York office of the Refugee Data Center was closed in August to be moved to Virginia, closer to the State Department — but no reopening date has been set.

Refugees by the numbers

Number of refugees worldwide: 12 million

Number of internally displaced worldwide: 5.3 million

Ceiling on number of refugees allowed to enter the United States in fiscal year 2001: 80,000

Refugees resettled in the United States in fiscal year 2001: 68,426

Ceiling on number of refugees set for fiscal year 2002 (ends Sept. 30): 70,000

Resettled to date in fiscal year 2002: 20,414

Related Web sites

Immigration and Naturalization Service

International Catholic Migration Commission

Jesuit Refugee Service

Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota

State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees

U.S. Catholic bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services

National Catholic Reporter, September 6, 2002