WASHINGTON (February 12, 2002) -- Migration and Refugee Services staff of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops testified today before the U. S. Senate Subcommittee on Immigration on the state of the U.S. Refugee Program. "With concentrated effort and political will the U.S. government can meet its commitment to process the 70,000 refugees authorized for admission into the U.S. by the Presidential Determination signed by President Bush November 21, 2001," according to testimony submitted by Anastasia Brown, Assistant Director of Migration and Refugee Services Processing Operations, testifying on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Immediately following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., the Administration suspended refugees admissions to this country. Refugees were the only populations blocked from entry into the country and are the group which has historically undergone the most thorough screening prior to admission. During the first quarter of FY 2002, only 781 refugees were admitted while over 15,000 were admitted to the U.S. during the same period in 2001. Prior to September 11th, 22,000 refugees had been approved by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and INS for admissions to the U.S. with almost 55,000 persons awaiting INS interviews.
"The number of refugees worldwide continues to grow at an alarming rate while United States refugee assistance has continued to diminish at a steady rate over the last nine years," said Brown. Millions of Africans have become new refugees after years of war, repression and civil unrest. Peace negotiations have faltered there, military offensives and atrocities have increased, with refugees
seeking protection in countries already beset by armed conflict, hunger and disease. During the last four months alone, nearly 3,000 Afghan widows and children have been languishing in Pakistan, and the situation is progressively deteriorating for the Liberians seeking asylum in Guinea and the Ivory Coast and for Burmese Christians having fled to India & Thailand.
While acknowledging that national security is of the utmost importance, Ms. Brown reiterated the intense scrutiny which refugees undergo in the process of being accepted for resettlement in the U.S. She continued to outline several proactive steps the government can take to expedite the processing of the 70,000 refugees authorized for resettlement without sacrificing security concerns:
- More personnel should be committed to the process of finger printing refugees. And the INS should be more proactive in identifying secure locations at ports of entry to process refugees upon arrival more efficiently.
- INS must have sufficient staff to complete its review of family-based refugee claims within six months. In addition, security name checks, medical exams, and sponsorship assurances should be completed overseas prior to or concurrent with the INS review.
- Security Advisory Opinions (name checks conducted by the FBI on criminal records required for refugees of certain nationalities) should be completed more expeditiously. This would require the Justice Department placing refugee reviews as a priority while ensuring the FBI has the capacity to meet a shorter deadline.
- The Department of State should identify the number of interviewing officers required to reach the admissions ceiling and communicate to its embassies the need for the expeditious location of secure space in which the INS can conduct the interviews.
"U.S. refugee assistance helps relieve explosive international tensions and sets an example for the rest of the world to provide assistance to individuals in dangerous and desperate situations.
Each refugee admission number not used in a fiscal year represents a refugee forced to languish in a hopeless situation overseas," Brown stated.