UNITED NATIONS - The number of refugees allowed into the United States has dropped well below levels authorized by Congress and the White House over the last decade, even as the number of people desperately needing resettlement worldwide has soared.
Last year, 72,515 refugees were admitted to the United States, according to government statistics. That is far fewer than the 90,000 authorized and a fraction of the estimated 14.5 million people currently deemed to be refugees.
Since 1990, nearly 117,000 fewer refugees have arrived in the United States than could have been admitted legally, advocates estimate.
''Every time one of these slots is not used, that means a refugee somewhere in the world is left to languish in a camp or desperate circumstances,'' said Ralston Deffenbaugh Jr., president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a Baltimore-based agency that resettled 12,744 refugees last year. ''We are not as proactive as we should be.''
Despite that, the United States remains the world's largest haven for refugees and a generous benefactor to refugee programs abroad. The United States provides nearly 30 percent of the annual budget of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which works worldwide to feed and shelter refugees and help them return home or resettle.
But advocates say the failure to use the full number of refugee slots is particularly poignant today, on the observance of World Refugee Day, established to remind the world of its dispossessed.
''You are wasting the opportunity that Congress has provided,'' said Bill Frelick, policy director of the US Committee for Refugees in Washington.
Officials at the State Department said the shortfall results in part from the challenges of the post-Cold War world, in which dozens of regional wars have created scores of new refugee populations, making resettlement decisions more complex.
''It's a much more complex program to manage,'' said a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. ''But I think there's been a sustained commitment to meeting the worldwide needs of refugees.''
Refugee advocates blame cumbersome government procedures, bureaucracy, and a lack of political will.
But they say they hope the Bush administration will change the situation. US Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage ''are aware of the issue,'' Deffenbaugh said.
Just as the American military has had to retool to face the challenges posed by modern ethnic strife, so the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service may have to revamp their approach to identifying and approving refugees to come to the United States, specialists say.
''They are using old procedures for a new situation,'' said Kathleen Newland, a refugee specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ''The whole process needs to be looked at from the ground up. If you were inventing a resettlement process, you would not end up with what we have now.''
Determining who qualifies for entry as a refugee is a complex process, and delays can occur at many stages.
The UNHCR often has first contact with refugees and screens them for eligibility, followed by interviews with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
With no permanent staff overseas, the US agency often organizes tours by its personnel to interview many refugees in one area at once. Advocates say refugees often have to wait for months and travel to a central location for the interviews, a process that can take six months or more.
''It's a cumbersome process,'' said Newland.
Under the Clinton administration, the process became far more selective. Once just about any relative of a refugee already in the United States could qualify for entry, but now only immediate family - spouses, unmarried children, and parents - from six designated African nations qualify. Grandparents, grandchildren, married sons, aunts, and uncles do not qualify.
''If you are the mother of someone from Bosnia, you would not qualify for refugee resettlement,'' said Deffenbaugh.
He and other advocates said last year's shortfall in accepted refugees could have been made up by just allowing in close family members from particularly vulnerable populations.
The government does recognize that some populations are especially at risk. Each year, the president, in consultation with Congress, sets ceilings for the number of refugees from various regions. Because of growing strife in Africa, the ceiling set for African refugees has steadily increased, from 4,000 in 1991 to 18,000 last year.
But other groups appear to have been overlooked. Last year, for example, refugee advocates said the US government, which has traditionally admitted Jews from the former Soviet Union, failed to consider those driven by the war in Chechnya to Georgia or other former Soviet republics.
''There's no legal obstacle, and there were very compelling cases,'' said Frelick of the US Committee for Refugees. ''I think the State Department gets stuck in a rut and are not creative and proactive.''
Some of the shortfalls have occurred because ceilings were raised in response to major crises, such as the war in Kosovo, but the expected refugees did not materialize.
But refugee advocates said the target numbers or ceilings have also declined. In 1992, at the height of the Bosnian war, the ceiling was set at 142,900 refugees. By 1997, it had dipped to 78,000.
''It's a downward trend at a time when refugee numbers worldwide are going up,'' Frelick said.
But State Department officials say the changes in the ceiling numbers reflect the unpredictability of events, not a lack of will.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company