In the Aftermath of September 11: U.S. Refugee Resettlement on Hold

In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and the U.S.-led military offensive against Afghanistan that began October 7, the U.S. refugee program has come to a halt, leaving thousands of refugees overseas in dangerous limbo, straining the limited resources of agencies that resettle them, and exacerbating the decline in annual U.S. refugee admissions for yet another year.

In late October – about a month after FY 2002 refugee admissions would have begun under normal circumstances – overseas refugee admissions remained on hold until further notice.

The annual Presidential Determination (PD) authorizing refugee admissions – usually signed just before or during the first week of each new fiscal year – has remained unsigned. As written, the current PD would authorize the Department of State's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) to admit as many as 70,000 refugees in FY 2002, the lowest resettlement "ceiling" in more than a decade. PRM projects that far fewer will likely arrive this year. To expedite the signing of the PD, PRM has proposed that Congress waive the annual consultations on refugee admissions, but that too remained undecided at October's end.

During the "moratorium" on refugee admissions, an interagency task force, including the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of State (DOS), is conducting a review of the U.S. refugee resettlement program, with a particular emphasis on security. The Bush administration has shared little specific information on the scope or potential ramifications of the interagency security review with the voluntary agencies, or volags (national organizations representing local resettlement agencies) and other advocates, making contingency planning difficult.

The volags believe that the reviewers are examining three overarching issues within the refugee program: 1) the safety of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officers who are posted or who travel abroad to conduct refugee status interviews for the admissions program, 2) the security of the U.S. public as it relates to individuals being screened and admitted under the refugee program, and 3) misrepresentation or fraud – broadly defined – by persons seeking entry into the United States through the refugee program. At a minimum, they say, the review will likely result in more thorough background checks of refugee applicants, more comprehensive verification of refugees' identities, and longer pre- and post-arrival processing times in general.

"We are trying to gather information on the review process," Refugee Council USA (RCUSA) chair Ralston Deffenbaugh said. "Thus far, we don't know for sure who is doing the review, the scope of the review, its duration, or if there will be an opportunity for nongovernmental organizations or members of Congress to have input into the process and the decisions that come from it. We are concerned that people without expert knowledge of refugee issues are conducting the review and would like to lend our expertise to the process," said Deffenbaugh, who also serves as the president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

In an October 23 press release, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) noted, "The question being posed [in many countries] – what additional, security-based procedural safeguards can be taken by governments – is an inherently reasonable one. But we need to ensure that it is answered correctly, and that any new safeguards strike a proper balance with the refugee protection principles that may be at stake." Any discussion of security safeguards, UNHCR added, "should start from the assumption that refugees are themselves escaping persecution and violence, including terrorism, and are not themselves the perpetrators of such acts."

UNHCR urged governments to uphold the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, observing that the Convention already contains an "exclusion clause," which excludes persons who have committed particularly serious crimes from gaining refugee status. The Convention also waives the prohibition on refoulement for those who are a danger to national security. "If properly applied, the 1951 Convention will exclude those responsible for terrorist acts, and may even assist in their identification and eventual prosecution. In short, the 1951 Convention does not extend protection to the non-deserving," UNHCR said.

"Bona fide refugees, by definition, are fleeing persecution and war and often lack identity documents. Therefore, any new security policy will need to strike a delicate balance between what is reasonable to expect refugees to be able to provide and the need to insure that the physical security concerns of INS officers and others, including the public, are upheld," said Lavinia Limon, executive director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) and Immigration and Refugee Services of America (IRSA). "To our knowledge, no known terrorist has ever entered the United States through the refugee program, largely because it has one of the most stringent screening processes of the immigration programs and because the refugee definition itself excludes dangerous individuals. We hope to be given the opportunity to help the Justice Department arrive at practical solutions that improve security, maintain the integrity of the program, and help bona fide refugees continue to access U.S. resettlement."

Although many refugees have scanty documentation, all must satisfy the U.S. government of their identity and undergo a lengthy background check prior to admission. Refugees referred by UNHCR must also satisfy UNHCR standards before being referred to the U.S. program.

As the system stands, all asylum seekers who have been granted refugee status by the INS must pass a Department of State clearance procedure before they may travel to the United States. (The scope of security clearance required by DOS for refugee applicants varies by nationality.) All INS-approved refugee applicants are also checked against the "Consular Lookout and Support System" (CLASS) – another computerized name search system.

"Clearance," according to the DOS, involves "obtaining information pertaining to an applicant's visa eligibility" from records available to the DOS in Washington D.C. or at Foreign Service posts through checks against "post records and/or outside sources."

To initiate the process, embassy staff at the overseas post where the refugee applies for refugee status send a request for a background check to the DOS requesting clearance on the refugee.

The DOS starts by conducting a "name check" – a search of U.S. government agency records that initiates a security check from U.S. government agencies responsible for national security, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Name check requests include the applicant's name – including aliases and alternate spellings, nationality, birth date and place, and visa classification. Embassy staff also include the date of the individual's last visa (if any), any "derogatory information available on the applicant" that might suggest that he or she is excludable or that warrants additional clearance procedures, and information obtained through the CLASS clearance check.

Embassy staff may also request that the DOS issue a Security Advisory Opinion (SAOs) on a refugee applicant, which requires a higher level of scrutiny.

INS Suspends Circuit Rides; Most Interviewing Stops

During the review process, the INS has suspended "circuit rides" (trips to sites around the world to interview refugees). It has also suspended interviewing everywhere except places where there is a "permanent INS duty station with a U.S. embassy (or interest section) roof over it," according to the INS. (For a map of overseas processing posts, see p.4.)

As a result, one week after the attacks, the INS said that it planned to continue conducting refugee interviews in only three locations – Moscow, Vienna, and Havana. On October 11, however, the U.S. government abruptly suspended refugee interviewing in Moscow as well, citing the need to improve physical security around the U.S. embassy there.

"The national refugee resettlement agencies learned about the suspension of refugee interviews in Moscow only by reading an article which appeared in the Moscow Times several days later," said Mark Hetfield, director of international operations for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). "We are told that the suspension will remain in effect until the State Department is satisfied with the security procedures at the Consular section, which houses the INS."

Hetfield noted that many refugee applicants who had already traveled to Moscow, or who were en route when the International Organization for Migration [IOM] attempted to notify them of their cancellations, did not learn their interviews had been canceled until they arrived at the gates of the U.S. Embassy. "Refugee applicants and their families traveled from as far as Central Asia or the Southern Caucasus, often having to empty their savings and borrow money to pay for the trip to be interviewed," said Hetfield. "When they were turned away at the embassy, they were given no information about how or when they would be rescheduled."

Refugees in the "Pipeline" in Limbo

Among the groups affected by the moratorium are some 23,000 refugees approved by the INS for U.S. admission. Of these, about 16,000 have received "assurances" from the local resettlement agencies that have agreed to assist them upon arrival. Approximately 7,000 to 10,000 are "travel ready" and could depart for the United States in a matter of days once notified. Many have given up their residences and sold belongings in anticipation of moving to the United States.

Among these are groups of especially vulnerable refugees who face grave danger if not moved to the United States quickly. In Pakistan, for example, more than 700 refugee women deemed "at risk" by the UNHCR because of sexual abuse and psychological trauma remain in limbo. En route to the United States on September 11, they were sent back to Pakistan to wait "until further notice." Others, including refugee children with urgent medical conditions in Turkey and Pakistan, await treatment in the United States. They, too, have been placed on hold.

The DOJ security review is reportedly taking place at higher levels within the DOJ and DOS than INS or PRM, so assisting these and other especially vulnerable groups is largely "out of PRM's hands" until the review is complete or admissions are allowed to go forward, a volag source told Refugee Reports. PRM has reportedly expressed concern for these and other vulnerable individuals and is working with the INS to find alternative admissions avenues for a select few.

"We may manage to admit a handful of the most urgent cases before admissions resume, but if the presidential determination is not signed, this means placing them in deferred inspection," said another volag source. "They'll be ineligible for refugee services until the President signs the PD. Still, we're working on a case-by-case basis and asking our agencies to offer pro bono help at first, assuming we can find a way to get them here."

Others Caught in the Middle

In addition to the 23,000 refugees already in the pipeline, tens of thousands of others are waiting for U.S. admissions to resume.

In FY 2001, UNHCR referred about 22,000 refugees to the United States for resettlement. Now, the agency waits along with tens of thousands of refugees to receive guidance from the United States on how to proceed.

"Should UNHCR staff overseas continue referring refugees or should we seek alternative resettlement countries for them?" a UHNCR resettlement source asked. "If our staff continue making referrals, we risk creating a backlog of desperate people who believe that they may be coming to the United States. If they have no chance of being interviewed by the INS in the foreseeable future, we need to know."

Thousands of other refugees who may be eligible without UNHCR referrals, including family-reunification cases, are also on hold.

Impact on Local Agencies

With refugees not arriving, the local resettlement agencies are having to consider what to do if refugee admissions do not start up soon or if they decline significantly this year. "At best, we'll have a temporary lull in arrivals in February and March because of the October moratorium," Shannon Dennett, director of national programs for IRSA, told Refugee Reports. "However, if this continues for several more months, some of the smaller agencies may have to lay off staff. Such reduced capacity will endanger our ability to provide quality resettlement or to respond to a refugee emergency if needed."

Local agencies are working to dispel any public perception that refugees and asylum seekers are "criminals" or that they have any connection to terrorism. Many report that their refugee clients are experiencing discrimination in various forms. Several agencies, for example, report that local officials are refusing to recognize I-94 cards (identity documents issued by INS) as sufficient documentation for driver's licenses and social security cards. Some are reportedly requiring an extensive list of documents that refugees cannot produce. "This is creating a real hardship for refugees who need these documents as soon as possible after arrival," Dennett said.

Declining Admissions

The post-September 11 drop in refugee arrivals came at the busiest time in U.S. refugee admissions – during the traditional "fourth-quarter bulge" in the pipeline. Overseas processing posts generally try to send as many refugees as possible to the United States during the final month of each fiscal year (i.e. September) if eligible refugees have been identified and federally funded U.S. admissions spaces have not all been used.

On September 11, hundreds of refugees in transit to the United States were diverted to other countries to wait for air travel to resume. Others were simply returned to their departure points. Approximately 2,000 who were to depart in September remain waiting.

With or without these additional admissions, resettlement numbers for FY 2001 were low compared to previous years. Actual admissions for FY 2001 were the lowest of the decade. In FY 2001, which ended September 30, PRM admitted 68,430 refugees – 11,570 fewer than the worldwide ceiling of 80,000, 4,085 fewer than were admitted in FY 2000, 16,576 fewer than in FY 1999, and 42,592 fewer than were admitted in FY 1991.

FY 2001 admissions included: 19,003 refugees from Africa – close to the regional ceiling of 20,000; 3,724 from East Asia – 2,276 below the ceiling of 6,000 for the region; 15,776 refugees from Europe – 4,224 below the regional ceiling of 20,000; 14,869 from the former Soviet Union – 2,131 below the regional ceiling of 17,000; 12,086 refugees from the Middle East and South Asia – 2,086 more than the ceiling of 10,000 in that region; and 2,972 (overwhelmingly Cubans) from Latin America and the Caribbean – slightly below the ceiling of 3,000 for the region.

Along with declining admissions, the worldwide resettlement ceiling has decreased every year since 1992 (see chart, p. 20). Between 1991 and 2001, the worldwide admissions ceiling dropped almost 40 percent, from 131,000 in FY 1991 to 80,000 in FY 2001. The proposed ceiling of 70,000 for FY 2002 is the lowest in over a decade.

The decline is caused, in part, by a fundamental shift in the policy governing U.S. resettlement admissions since the end of the Cold War and the decline of large in-country processing programs in the former Soviet Union and Vietnam (see Refugee Reports, Vol. 21, No. 9). In addition, PRM has reduced family-based processing in recent years. As a result, PRM is depending increasingly on understaffed UNHCR offices to refer more "protection" cases.

PRM is now resettling refugees from increasingly diverse regions and populations, based less so than in the past on their family ties to the United States, and more so on the urgency of their need for resettlement. These changes require additional monitoring and management of overseas processing posts, which have increased from a few in East Asia and the former Soviet Union to more than 15 worldwide. However, for the time being, only two – in Vienna and Havana – remain fully operational.

Whither Middle East Admissions?

Despite shortfalls in other regions, PRM has surpassed the regional ceiling in the Middle East and South Asia for two years in a row. However, volag sources predicted that refugees in the region may be hardest hit by the moratorium on admissions. Some sources suggested that PRM might "reallocate" admissions spaces reserved for the region to resettle refugees from other regions.

Two years ago, PRM committed to providing resettlement opportunities to larger numbers of vulnerable refugees in the Middle East and South Asia by doubling admissions from the region from 4,000 to 8,000 for FY 2000, which it surpassed by 2,079. The bureau requested and received another increase in the Middle East/South Asia ceiling for FY 2001, raising it to 10,000 and admitting more than 12,000 refugees from the region last year.

Most refugees resettled out of the Middle East/South Asia region that are referred to the United States by UNHCR originate from one of four countries – Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Sudan. (PRM counts Sudanese in the regional ceiling for Africa.) Unable to return to their homes, substantial numbers of refugees in the region also face dangerous conditions in their countries of first asylum. Most countries in the region are not signatories to the UN Refugee Convention and do not have established asylum procedures. Often unable to obtain any legal status, many refugees must contend with an array of threats, from simple harassment to arrest and deportation.

PRM's resettlement of Middle East and South Asian refugees involves preparing and adjudicating refugee cases in a diverse range of countries, some of which were difficult to gain access to and lacked adequate security long before September 11. The resettlement needs in the region also require the INS to conduct more circuit rides and adjudicate smaller numbers of refugee cases in a wider range of countries than in the past. In addition, most of the refugees whose cases are adjudicated live outside of refugee camps, which, for all their other faults, have often facilitated identifying and processing refugee caseloads.

For its part, when UNHCR recognizes a person as a refugee in the Middle East and South Asia, governments in the region usually hold UNHCR responsible for resettling them outside the region. Therefore, UNHCR, in effect, sets a high standard for refugee recognition in this region.

UNHCR expressed concern that "states may now be inclined not to maintain their resettlement programs at promised levels, particularly for certain ethnic groups or nationalities." But as far as UNHCR is concerned, "resettlement remains imperative, especially for some vulnerable refugees from places like Afghanistan, where women in particular may be at risk."

Volags Act

Back in the United States, the volags, represented by RCUSA, are working to glean information about the interagency security review and to develop recommendations for the Administration and Congress.

They are discussing, among other recommendations: 1) examining and sharing "best practices" regarding security by the overseas processing posts; 2) improving the transparency of the overseas processing pipeline so that PRM and the resettlement agencies can better evaluate overseas processing, anticipate and address security concerns and other problems, and allocate staff and other resources to meet the needs of overseas processing posts; 3) improving the security of case files at all overseas processing posts; and 4) exploring ways to supplement background information gathering on refugee applicants.

"We want to work with the Administration on this because we acknowledge that security is of utmost importance," said Deffenbaugh. "The United States can improve the safety of INS officers and supplement the screening procedures that are already a part of the refugee program. However, we can do this without in any way retreating from our nation's commitment to provide a safe resettlement haven for refugees."

SOURCE: Refugee Reports, Vol. 22, No 9/10 (September/October 2001)


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