- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

U.S. anti-terrorist laws passed after the September 11 attacks inadvertently have made it more difficult for legitimate political refugees to find asylum in the United States, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said yesterday.

Anyone who ever has given material assistance to a group of people considered to be terrorists — even under duress — is now ineligible for asylum status unless granted a specific waiver, Antonio Guterres explained in an interview at the UNHCR office in Washington.

“It is difficult for [certain] people to be selected because they have, in the past, given material support to terrorists. The fact is, in many circumstances, these people are victims of terrorist organizations who blackmailed them,” said Mr. Guterres, a native of Portugal.

The commissioner said he had discussed the situation with the State Department, legislators, the attorney general and the secretary of Homeland Security.

“We had very frank, open and hopefully a successful dialogue,” said Mr. Guterres, who is scheduled to meet today with National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley.

Bush administration officials appear ready to be flexible in certain cases.

Andrew Painter, senior protection officer for the UNHCR, said an agreement had been reached with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to issue a waiver known as an “inapplicability provision” for members of the persecuted Karen tribe of Burma, currently living in exile in Thailand.

The United States normally accepts up to 54,000 refugees a year, said Mr. Guterres, who described the U.S. resettlement program as one of the most important and the largest in the world.

But under the Real ID Act of 2005, designed to protect the United States from terrorist infiltration, the definition of what amounts to support for a terrorist group was broadened.

In one case, a Burmese asylum seeker was denied refugee protection in the United States simply because three unarmed members of the Chin National Front — a Burmese rebel group — had approached him and asked whether they could speak about democracy at the school where he taught. The rebels stayed there two nights and were given food and beverages.

Meanwhile, the definition of what constitutes a terrorist group has been broadened under the USA Patriot Act. Previously limited to groups on a list maintained by the State Department, restrictions now apply to any organization that engages in “terrorist activity,” as defined by U.S. immigration law.

This definition includes any group that uses explosives, firearms, weapons or dangerous devices with the intent to endanger one or more people or cause substantial property damage.

Mr. Painter said 500 asylum cases were on hold in the U.S. under the material-support provision, and some applications have been denied outright, though there has been no systematic tracking of those numbers.

Humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGO) have expressed similar concerns that U.S. anti-terrorism legislation is affecting aid distribution in places such as Afghanistan.

Villagers and other potential aid recipients now must be screened against a U.S. terrorism database before being granted any assistance.

“It is an additional process we have to go through,” said one NGO director, who asked that neither she nor her organization be identified out of concern that the comments could be taken as criticism of the administration.

“A lot of people don’t have last names, so there are those kinds of difficulties. We have not had any matches, but names are very similar,” she said.

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