WASHINGTON (September 21, 2004) – The dramatic drop in U.S. refugee admissions is beginning to reverse but the nation should do more to alleviate a grave worldwide refugee situation, according to an official of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who offered several recommendations today to a Senate subcommittee.
Mark Franken, Executive Director of the USCCB's Migration and Refugee Services, told members of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship that with appropriate funding, the United States is on track to fulfill an earlier State Department commitment to admit as many as 90,000 refugees in fiscal year 2005.
Following the 2001 terrorist attacks, U.S. admissions dropped to less than half the number recommended by the President. Consequently, "almost 85,000 vulnerable refugees lost the opportunity to resettle in the United States," Franken said, at a time "when there were an estimated 13 million refugees in the world."
Franken testified before the subcommittee in his capacity as chairman of the Refugee Council USA, a coalition of 19 refugee resettlement, processing, assistance, and policy organizations of which the USCCB is a member.
In addition to urging the subcommittee to re-commit to the goal, set in August 2001, to admit as many as 90,000 refugees in fiscal year 2005, Franken offered several other suggestions for improving the U.S. refugee program:
- Enhancing Referral Capacity
The State Department has relied heavily, if not exclusively, on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to refer refugees to the U.S. admissions program in recent years. Franken said that additional avenues for referrals need to be developed and urged the subcommittee to consider the resources of non-governmental organizations as one alternative. He said U.S. embassies also should be given greater authority to identify and refer refugees to the U.S. program.
- Building Capacity to Identify and Process Refugees
"The State Department must be more proactive in identifying refugee populations for succeeding years," Franken said. He urged the creation of a "'pipeline' of refugees for resettlement which is continually filled." This pool of refugees would include individuals who had been screened and would be ready to travel on short notice. Franken suggested rapid response teams of NGO experts who would analyze the resettlement needs of refugee populations and help establish initial processing mechanisms to identify cases for U.S. admissions consideration. He said employment authorization documents are not going to all refugees, as required by a 2001 law, and he asked that the Department of Homeland Security be urged to implement the law fully.
- Expanding Access to the U.S. Refugee Program
Because some of the most vulnerable refugees do not have access to the U.S. refugee program, Franken said the State Department should expand access in certain categories, such as the category for families. Likewise, he said the State Department should place a high priority on responding to the needs of special populations, such as child refugees who arrive without parents or guardians.
He recommended funding levels for several federal accounts used to identify, process, and resettle refugees. He said the President's budget request for refugee programs in fiscal year 2005 falls "far short of meeting the need."
In closing, he highlighted the plight of refugee populations in need of assistance: Haitians and victims of government sanctioned violence in the Darfur region of Sudan. Franken said U.S. policy toward Haitian refugees attempting to arrive by boat was deeply troubling.
"It is our view that the United States should reverse its policy on Haitians seeking asylum in the United States," he said.
While commending recent congressional efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Sudanese victims, he urged the government "to increase their efforts with the government in Khartoum to end the violence and to expedite humanitarian assistance to the region."