WASHINGTON - President George W. Bush is being urged to follow through on his recent statements of support for refugees by increasing, rather than cutting, U.S. assistance both to refugees who want to enter the United States and those trying to create new lives overseas.
At a White House conference on faith-based and community initiatives June 1, Bush met with a Liberian woman and a Sudanese youth who escaped violence in their homelands and were eventually resettled in the United States as refugees.
"Our great nation receives tens of thousands of refugees, which is good," Bush said after hearing their stories. "These souls flee persecution and need help when they come to our country."
Despite those encouraging words, however, Bush's proposed US$18 billion foreign-aid budget proposes a $30 million cut in the Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA) account for fiscal year 2005. That would follow a $21 million cut in the MRA account this year, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) which is calling on Bush to boost funding.
"Resettlement saves lives, as the President said so eloquently, but cutting MRA funding won't permit refugee admissions to be sustained at 50,000 (next year), much less raise them to necessary and historically higher levels," said USCR director Lavinia Limon.
"The President's leadership is critical as the Foreign Operations appropriations subcommittees (in Congress) determine the final amount over the next two weeks."
Bush has proposed $730 million for the MRA account for FY 2005, which begins Oct. 1, and the Congress will be debating the foreign aid bill over the coming weeks. He has also asked for $30 million for the Emergency Migration and Assistance (ERMA) account that is earmarked for unanticipated humanitarian crises over the course of the year.
Due to limits set by the two Budget committees, analysts believe that many of the development and humanitarian accounts could actually be cut when Congress has finished its work.
In addition to bilateral U.S. aid and resettlement programs, MRA funds also include U.S. contributions to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other independent refugee and relief organizations.
As Bush noted, the United States has traditionally been a leader in refugee admissions the annual ceiling for which is currently set at 70,000.
But, with so little money requested for the MRA account, refugee advocates say it will be impossible to reach that goal next year, the third year in a row that refugee admissions will have fallen far short of the Congressionally approved limit.
Thousands of refugees, whose admission to the U.S. had already been approved in 2000 and 2001, were forced to wait for many more months after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Many of the refugees are forced to live in camps where education and economic opportunity are unavailable.
Moreover, the global refugee situation remains very difficult as funding appeals from UNHCR for donors to provide money for unanticipated crises have proven only partially successful.
In just the past few weeks, thousands of refugees from Burundi have begun returning home from Tanzania after nearly a decade in exile, while the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has warned that many of the million people uprooted by government-backed raids on African villages in the western province of Darfur in Sudan during the past year are at risk, and that one third of that total are likely to perish even if the international community is able to mount a massive relief operation to the region.
"The President and Congress must ensure that adequate funding is available for current and future emergencies," said Limon. "The ERMA account must be funded at $50 million at least, and the MRA account must be increased, not decreased, if the President's commitment to refugee resettlement is to have meaning."
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