WASHINGTON - Terror victims are being denied sanctuary under U.S. counter-terrorism laws even as next year's federal budget threatens to push ever greater numbers to seek safe haven in the first place, refugee advocates said this week.
At issue are the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 and REAL ID Act of 2005, measures that expanded the definition of terrorist activity and the types of organization that could be branded as terrorist.
President George W. Bush has proposed altering foreign aid and refugee spending in ways that will intensify poverty, instability, and other ''push factors'' that drive people from their homes and countries, humanitarian groups said.
This is resulting in ''a perverse outcome,'' said Joel Charny, vice president for policy at Refugees International: ''Victims of terrorism are being designated terrorist supporters and blocked from receiving sanctuary and a chance to start a new life in the United States.''
Additionally, President George W. Bush has proposed altering foreign aid and refugee spending in ways that will intensify poverty, instability, and other ''push factors'' that drive people from their homes and countries, humanitarian groups said.
Homeland security personnel have barred refugees on the grounds that the refugees provided ''material support'' to terrorists. Often however, Charny said, the refugees are forced at gunpoint or other types of ''extreme duress'' to provide food or shelter to members of armed factions in civil or drug wars, he added.
The rules need to be refined to grant admission to refugees and asylum-seekers whose support for so-called terrorist organizations was coerced, unintentional, or inconsequential, said Charny. His organization is among a coalition pushing for such a change under the umbrella of the Washington, D.C.-based Refugee Council USA.
Such amendments remained to be won after legislators struck a compromise Thursday to extend the USA PATRIOT Act, portions of which lapsed at the end of last year.
Bush repeatedly described the law, which expands police and prosecutorial powers, as essential to his ''war on terror'' but critics said it violated civil liberties and had been abused for political purposes.
Final passage of the latest compromise--which Republican senators said would protect civil liberties--awaited a formal vote.
The new measure did not address the ''material support'' issue, attorneys and advocates at Refugee Council USA and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) told OneWorld.
Charny highlighted Colombian and Burmese refugees hit by the current ''harsh application of the material support provision.''
Armed groups hold sway over swathes of Colombia's rural hinterland, ''terrorizing local communities and forcing them to donate food and other supplies under pain of torture, kidnapping, or execution,'' he said, citing cases documented by Refugees International.
The groups also force local people to pay so-called taxes. At least seven in 10 Colombian refugees who otherwise would be referred to the U.S. refugee resettlement program have thus been tainted, UN and other humanitarian workers have said.
In Thailand and Malaysia, refugees from Myanmar, also known as Burma, have fled violence committed against their communities under the government's strategy to combat a number of insurgencies.
''These individuals may have contributed to ethnic and religious organizations that are associated with groups taking up arms against the Burmese authorities but the fundamental fact is that the violence they experienced, and their claim to refugee status, are the product of state-sponsored persecution by the Burmese government,'' Charny said.
''Christian Chin refugees in Malaysia or refugees of Karen or Karenni ethnicity in Thailand constitute no security threat whatsoever to the United States or their current host country,'' he added.
''Ruling out entire refugee populations on the basis of material support concerns makes no sense,'' said Charny.
Congress has given the U.S. homeland security chief, secretary of state, and attorney general authority to decide that the ''material support'' bar need not apply to certain groups or individuals, he acknowledged. They have held talks but so far have failed to hammer out a solution to the problem.
U.S. refugee admissions have slowed down since 2001, consistently falling far short of the U.S. government's target of resettling 70,000 refugees per year, said Refugees International.
In addition to blocking refugees from finding safe haven in the United States, the slowdown could hurt their chances of getting to countries neighboring their own. Such countries--Thailand and Malaysia, in the case of those fleeing Burma--often represent the first stop in a years-long journey to a new place the refugees will be allowed to call home, at least until conditions in their homeland are deemed suitable for their return.
Many first-stop countries agree to host refugees because they expect other governments to share the burden by giving at least some of the refugees the opportunity to resettle in a new country.
''As the material support issue constrains U.S. resettlement efforts, host countries may respond by diminishing support for refugees,'' said Charny.
In a separate development, the IRC warned Thursday that Bush's latest budget proposal risks creating new waves of refugees even as it threatens existing programs to help them.
Bush's proposed budget for fiscal 2007, which begins this October, actually would increase overall funding for refugee aid. In particular, it would provide more money to resettle refugees in the United States--even as the number of admissions has fallen.
IRC said in a statement it supported that goal but warned the increase in spending at home ''would come at the expense of aid to refugees overseas.''
That, coupled with cuts in foreign disaster relief and aid programs that have sought to improve health, education and living standards, could fuel flight from unstable, poverty- and calamity-stricken nations and regions, IRC warned.
''It is much better to make a small investment in development now than to pay the costs of picking up the pieces after conflict and wars,'' said George Rupp, president of the organization, which specializes in global relief and rehabilitation efforts.
Added Anne Richard, the group's vice president in Washington, D.C.: ''IRC will need to ask Congress to ensure that desperately needed aid is also allocated to help refugees and the displaced around the world.''
Copyright 2006 OneWorld.net