The heightened emphasis on security since September 11 has caused a drastic reduction in the number of refugees admitted to the United States, and thousands of those who were cleared to migrate here are stranded overseas.
Since October, 781 refugees people who have demonstrated they are victims of religious or political persecution and need protection have arrived in this country. In the comparable period a year earlier, 14,000 were admitted.
Officials of humanitarian agencies say the decrease in U.S. admissions is seriously disrupting the refugee resettlement system. That’s because the agencies rely heavily on government grants, which decrease when the number of refugees ebbs, and on volunteers who drift to other endeavors when their assistance isn’t immediately needed.
“Refugee admissions slowed because of what happened internationally. But certainly in these times there is an important need for leadership in providing safe haven for those with nowhere else to turn. No refugee was involved in September 11. We’re disappointed. It’s disturbing,” says Lavinia Limon, director of the nonprofit U.S. Committee on Refugees.
Immediately after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, the government stopped the flow of immigrants into the country, pending a far-reaching security review of U.S. overseas facilities and immigrant-processing practices. The freeze denied entry to about 22,000 refugees who were “travel ready” before September 11.
Also, the Immigration and Naturalization Service officials charged with interviewing asylum seekers overseas were recalled, and President Bush delayed announcing the refugee quota for fiscal 2002 until the security reviews were completed.
When the reviews were accomplished in November, Mr. Bush announced that the United States would grant asylum to 70,000 refugees. But last week, the State Department declared that as an effect of heightened security and difficulties restarting the refugee-processing system, it would admit between 40,000 and 50,000 people this year.
Many people who would have been cleared for admission before September 11 will now be rejected, and tougher standards are being applied across the board, a State Department spokesman says.
The INS also indicated that it would be interviewing fewer new refugee cases. A spokesman said the agency will begin interviewing refugees again next month.
“People are suffering from these decisions,” Miss Limon said. “It’s not as if you can say, ‘Well, the 20,000 who were denied entry can come next year.’ These people at least a third of them children have no ability to survive in their current situations. They’re high-risk people. This is like sending out the lifeboats half full.”
Miss Limon and others said the slowdown in admissions is causing the so-called “refugee resettlement infrastructure” to crumble. Agencies are laying off paid staff and some are in danger of folding. Miss Limon says, “I’m very afraid this country will not have the infrastructure in place to respond to future refugee emergencies in the world.”
Martin Ford of the state-funded Maryland Office for New Americans said funding for non-state agencies assisting refugees typically is based on the number of refugees admitted and assisted in the previous year. If the refugee count is low in 2002, the money granted in 2003 will be low, requiring the organizations to shed workers and leaving the agencies unprepared to cope when demand for services increases.
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society resettled about 1,900 refugees in the final months of 2000 but helped just 34 in the same period of 2001, Reuters news agency reported.
The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which normally aids roughly 1,000 immigrants a month, provided aid to 94 from October to November of 2001, and this month cared for 230.