Our Disgraceful Refugee Score Card
For those who help resettle refugees in this country, the big date annually is Sept. 30, the end of the federal government's fiscal year. Because refugee arrivals are allotted per fiscal year, that's when we can measure how well -- or poorly -- the administration performed in accepting refugees. This year's score card is not good; the numbers have only slowly increased after the drop in admittees since the 9/11 attacks.
Although the Bush administration set a ceiling of 70,000 total refugees for fiscal year 2007, and budgeted for them, only 41,765 had arrived by Sept. 14, and the plan is to bring in 6,000 more before Sunday's deadline.
Why such low numbers? One factor is the outrageous practice of denying admittance to bona fide refugees because of post-9/11 anti-terrorist legislation, which brands some of them as terrorists or supporters of terrorism.
The Hmong who fought under CIA command in Laos, for example, have been deemed under the post-9/11 laws as belonging to a "terrorist organization," and they and those associated with them are now denied entry to the U.S. The same applies to Montagnards from Vietnam, staunch U.S. allies. Colombians who paid ransoms to save the lives of their kidnapped loved ones are considered guilty of giving material support to terrorists and denied access.
After a barrage of criticism in the media, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security issued a few targeted waivers. Those who associated with certain armed resistance groups (mostly Burmese combatants opposing the military regime in Myanmar) received waivers. Thanks to the waivers, more than 14,000 Burmese refugees will have been admitted this year. But the combatants are still banned.
This belated righting of a wrong shows that admitting more refugees -- and in large numbers -- is possible. As such, it constitutes a clear indictment of this administration on the most shameful chapter in the recent history of resettlement: the admission (or rather nonadmission) of Iraqi refugees into the United States.
From April 2003 to April 2007, fewer than 500 Iraqis were allowed into the U.S. as refugees. (To put this number in perspective, between May and December 1975, 131,000 South Vietnamese political refugees arrived in the U.S.)
In February, it looked as though the Bush administration was finally recognizing that that was unacceptable. An Iraq Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons Task Force was established, and the State Department said it would admit 7,000 Iraqi refugees by Sept. 30. Considering the exodus from Iraq of more than 2 million people, and considering that the U.S. bears a special responsibility for the war in Iraq, this was very low. But it was a small step in the right direction.
Then nothing much happened. In March, eight Iraqi refugees were admitted; in April, one; in May, one; in June, 63; in July, 57. The outrage on editorial pages and among advocacy groups was reinforced by letters from U.S. military personnel whose endangered translators and local staff were denied entry. Congressional hearings were held, and legislation was proposed. Still, from October 2006 through the end of August, only 719 Iraqi refugees had been admitted to the U.S.
Who deserves blame? Officials of the Homeland Security and State departments say the delays are not because of them, but because the U.N. has been slow in processing refugees.
Really? In February and March, I traveled to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey and visited the offices of the U.N. and of nongovernmental organizations preparing the refugees' cases. Everywhere I met Iraqi refugees ready to be interviewed by U.S. officials and saw stacks of refugees' files already screened by the U.N.
When a State Department official was gently questioned about the delays during a congressional hearing, she said that Homeland Security treats the Iraqis differently and that their extended security checks take longer.
Is that so? Each September, the administration engages in a last-minute, Herculean effort to improve the score card of refugee admissions. Overall numbers are not available, but taking a sample of the airline bookings for refugees being resettled by just the International Rescue Committee this year, more Iraqis are expected to arrive in September alone (151) than in the previous 11 months combined (113). But the total number of Iraqi refugees will be nowhere near the declared goal of 7,000.
Whether on purpose or by lack of commitment, the Bush administration failed to meet its own minimal standard of offering a haven to a few thousand of the most vulnerable Iraqis.
This is wrong. Such failure makes the U.S. lose hearts and minds across Iraq.
Anna Husarska is senior policy advisor at the International Rescue Committee. Website: theIRC.org
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times