Abandoning the neediest: Cautious new U.S. policies limit refugees granted asylum

June 30, 2003

WHEN MACHINE-GUN fire and explosions erupted in Abie Klaypenh's village in rebellion-bloodied Liberia, he fled to safety in a dugout canoe. Landing in the Ivory Coast, Klaypenh says, he found no haven. Instead, a corps of militiamen -- wary of an influx of Liberian refugees -- greeted him armed with machetes and shotguns. Ivory Coast civilians "search everything and demand money, any money you have," says Klaypenh, who was stripped of all his belongings before he was freed. His family was left behind in the confusion of battle. "My wife and eight kids ... I don't know where they are." 

Klaypenh is among millions of refugees around the globe. But their chances of asylum are diminishing as the United States cuts back on resettlement efforts.

In Liberia alone, 300,000 refugees have escaped to neighboring countries in the past three years, fleeing fighting between the country's forces and rebels battling to drive out President Charles Taylor. International authorities say the country's conflict is destabilizing West Africa as streams of refugees, guns and armed fighters pour across the borders. 

A World Refugee survey released in May revealed trouble spots on almost every continent. In the Middle East, Palestinian refugees number among the highest, at three million. In Asia, China in 2002 forcibly returned tens of thousands of North Koreans who fled their country.

While the United States remained the lead receiver of asylum seekers in 2002, the 27,000 refugees it admitted was less than half the number admitted in 2001 and the fewest in more than 30 years, according to the survey.

"Our government has failed to reach even 40 percent of the refugee admissions goals set by President Bush for two years in a row," says Ralston Deffenbaugh Jr., president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. "Each slot that goes unfilled is a precious human life that isn't saved."

Richard Parkins, director of Episcopal Migration Ministries at the Episcopal Church Center in New York, says that resettling refugees is about saving lives.

"We are not relieving the refugee crisis overseas by not resettling people," he says. "Resettlement is a form of rescue, and we are not rescuing people when we could be."

Resettlement officials say the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted resistance to admitting refugees. The Bush administration, they say, now expresses serious concerns about safety and security, not just in opening its doors to refugees, but also in sending Immigration and Naturalization Services personnel abroad to process applications. Officials in the United States are more suspicious of foreigners, worried that some intend to do harm.

"We do not have to sacrifice security in order to honor our tradition of saving persecuted people," says Parkins. "It's a false dichotomy to say, in order to bring in the maximum number of refugees you are sacrificing security. A great nation should be generous in receiving fleeing refugees while maintaining national security.

"All refugees are fleeing terrors; they are victims of terror, not the perpetrators of terror."

Struggling to stay open
Things changed dramatically after Sept. 11 at the Interfaith Refugee Ministry in New Haven, Conn., an affiliate agency of EMM, Church World Service and the Diocese of Connecticut, says Sharon Mackwell, diocesan refugee coordinator.

"The refugee program simply crashed and burned for the first three months because the administration clamped down on any foreign-born person entering the U.S. for any reason whatsoever," says Mackwell. "Heavy security rules became implemented. All INS personnel in processing posts were withdrawn from the field. Overseas processing came to a screeching halt." 

Staffed to resettle 200 refugees annually, the agency shifted resources to remain viable, Mackwell says. From emphasizing resettlement and matching grants, services moved to programs benefiting refugees already in the United States.

Cross-training staff to become involved in different projects such as pre-employment training and working with health-care providers to improve refugee access to health care became necessary, Mackwell says. "You have to have trained staff capable of being cross-trained, so that when the tides surge again, we will have the time and flexibility to reorient and gear up ourselves."

The Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services of Atlanta in Decatur, Ga., has had to redefine its mission to remain viable, says the Rev. Sandye Mullins, diocesan coordinator. Funded by the state, local churches, EMM and CWS to resettle 200 refugees -- and with a capacity for 500 -- Mullins says she is concerned about what this shortfall will mean for refugees.

"The U.S. has turned its cheek away from the needs of the world of those disenfranchised, those most in need that are displaced and have no place to go, that we once provided refuge for and now we have ultimately closed our doors," says Mullins. "Families are separated, there is no emotional, financial nor community support, and eventually funds will dry up so that the refugees that are here who may need a little support of orientation or social adjustment, in a year the funds may not be available to help them."

The strain from the challenges Interfaith Refugee and Immigrations Ministries in Chicago faces will affect service to refugees, says Gregory Wangerin, diocesan coordinator. "I feel like an elastic rubber band ready to snap and break because I don't know how long we can sustain ourselves. We have diversified and stretched ourselves too thin. ... [I now ask myself,] 'Have we watered ourselves down so much and become lacking in our mission and purpose?'"

Keep refugees on officials' minds
The diminishing U.S. role in providing protection for refugees has ripple effects, says Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Other nations take notice when the U.S. does not do its share, since we've been looked at as the humanitarian leader. When we draw back, other nations feel able to do so as well."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees proclaimed June 20 World Refugee Day, "asking that it be a time when faith-based agencies as well as human rights organizations acknowledge the ongoing crisis of refugees and lift up the courage and contributions of refugees to countries which give them safety and a chance to begin their lives anew."

Erol Kekic, associate director of CWS Immigration and Refugee Program for almost three years, says he hopes that the recognition on this day helps diminish the number of people needing rescue.

"We hope that this country will live up to its core value and continue to provide assistance to the world's most vulnerable," says Kekic. "We hope that more lives are saved by cutting the red tape of the government bureaucracy and by making our official policies as generous as American people are."

It is that generosity that Mullins hopes eventually leads to a positive turnaround for refugees.

"The ministry with refugees is an act of faith in which churches can share God's gift with those seeking new life and renewed hope," she says. "As Americans, when we become so isolated that we no longer recognize the most vulnerable of people in the world today, then in some way we are no longer present in that history of being a refuge ... from the time of Moses, who was exiled, to Jesus, whose family sought safe haven.

"The refugee story is our story of people of faith, and in not recognizing that story through the relationship that we have of others that are now the refugees of today, we've missed out on the opportunity to serve and to understand the most vulnerable population in this world today."