Flow of refugees to USA down to a trickle after terrorist attacks

February 4, 2002

Heightened national security in the wake of September’s terrorist attacks has cut the flow of refugees to the United States to a mere trickle, deeply frustrating attempts by church-related agencies to resettle those who are being persecuted.

Each fall the president of the United States is responsible for authorizing the admissions levels of refugees for the fiscal year that begins October 1. The terrorist attacks delayed that action until November 21 and no refugees entered the country during that seven-week interval. Only 783 have arrived since then, a fraction of the number compared with the same period last year.

The State Department, which administers the admission of refugees, claims that ongoing security concerns have stemmed the flow and they have now informed national resettlement agencies, such as Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM), that the number for this year is now likely to be no more than 50,000. That reverses a prior commitment to allow 70,000 to enter the country.

“This protracted delay in restarting the refugee program means that over 20,000 refugees overseas—who were prepared to move to the US—are being detained longer in the deplorable conditions that characterize most refugee camps,” said Richard Parkins, director of EMM. He noted that the agency had resettled fewer than 50 people so far, compared with nearly 450 for the same time last year. “The delay also inflicts further punishment on those who are themselves the victims of terror,” he added.

A human tragedy

Parkins said that the current stalemate in the movement of refugees is “the most serious crisis the US refugee program has faced in the 22 years that I have been associated with the program.” He deplored “the closing down of resettlement operations around the country and the disappearance of a national capacity to resettle refugees, dramatically altering the nation’s ability to respond to future refugee crises.”

In concert with colleague agencies, EMM has contacted the Administration, stressing that “unless the movement of refugees is accelerated a human tragedy will befall thousands of refugees.” Parkins argued that “when the US reduces its commitment to resettle refugees, the rest of the world feels justified in diminishing its hospitality to these persons who are especially vulnerable. In the very near future we could have a crisis of unimaginable proportions as resettlement becomes an even more remote option for so many of the world’s refugees.”

Special scrutiny

According to Parkins, the barrier in moving refugees is linked to heightened security measures invoked by the government in processing refugees and the requirement that locations where they are interviewed and screened meet very strict security standards. While acknowledging the importance of security, Parkins pointed out that “refugees are already among the most scrutinized category of immigrants admitted to the US. The cumulative evidence of many years of resettlement reveals a population of law-abiding, loyal Americans and not ones harboring or producing terrorists. It seems ironic that refugees would be targeted for special scrutiny, given the screening to which they are already subjected and their history of loyalty to and participation in their adopted homeland.”

EMM will join other resettlement agencies in asking that the implementation of security measures be accelerated and that refugees not be “held hostage to slow implementation,” according to Parkins.

Lifeboats half full

“People are suffering from these decisions,” said Lavinia Limon, director of the U.S. Committee on Refugees. “These people—at least a third of them children—have no ability to survive in their current conditions. They are high-risk people. This is like sending out the lifeboats half full.”

She added that the change was causing the “refugee resettlement infrastructure” to crumble since humanitarian agencies depend on government grants for their work. Parkins said that EMM has settled so few refugees that affiliates have little or no revenue. “We have had a considerable number of staff layoffs and some affiliates may not survive if the movement of refugees does not begin soon,” he said. He found some encouragement in a recent announcement by Commissioner James Zigler of the Immigration and Naturalization Service that the agency was committed to honoring the president’s call for 70,000 refugees this year. “It is now incumbent on the State Department to do its part in building upon the INS pledge,” he said.