The Golden Ticket

Will Our Refugee Program Survive 9-11 and the Breakup of the INS?

These are not the stories drafters of international law had in mind when they wrote the Refugee Convention in 1951 in response to the crisis of World War II. But the horror of having turned away those fleeing Nazi extermination—most notoriously, though hardly uniquely, when the U.S. refused the USS St. Louis a port in 1939 and sent 900 Jews to certain death—stirred a universal commitment to providing safe haven for the persecuted. Optimistically, perhaps, officials expected the convention to become obsolete within a few years; it applied only to victims of the Second World War. A sobering 1967 protocol updated the convention and expanded its scope. The U.S. signed on in 1968.

Nonetheless, until 1980, when Congress passed the landmark Refugee Act, the U.S. had no formal resettlement policy. America took in World War II refugees on an ad hoc basis through the initiative of private, usually religious, organizations. More active from the late 1950s through the 1970s, the federal government gave almost exclusive preference to those fleeing Communist countries, still on a case-by-case basis—admitting Hungarians, Cubans, Vietnamese, and more Cubans.

With the end of the Cold War in the '80s, however, refugee allocations stopped being, at least so baldly, foreign policy by other means. Nowadays, says Lavinia Limón, head of the nonprofit Immigration and Refugee Services of America (IRSA), selection is often a function of "which group has the best lobbying on their behalf or where CNN has just been."

If there's little strategic planning in U.S. resettlement policy, there is a formidable infrastructure—and bureaucracy: an Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services as well as a Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration within the State Department. Along with the INS, state-level refugee coordinator offices, and some 10 national voluntary agencies, these organizations have over the last 20 years helped to bring in more than 2 million people, and provided such assistance as job training, housing, and English classes.

The U.S. designates three categories of eligible refugees: those recommended by the UNHCR (or a local U.S. embassy), those with close relatives already settled in the U.S., and those belonging to an ethnic or religious group specified by the president as of special concern to the U.S.—Soviet Jews, for instance, or, more recently, religious minorities from Iran and the "Lost Boys" of Sudan (thousands of young cattle tenders who were left in the wilderness of southern Sudan with only each other to rely on after soldiers burned their villages in the late 1980s).

Advocates are pressing for the government to designate other special groups—including "at-risk women," vulnerable in some camps because they lack the protection of a father or husband—and to expedite their processing for arrival this year. At the very least, they want numbers short of 70,000 to be rolled over to next year. Most of all, says IRSA's Limón, "We need government to do what it's not best known for: Stretch their imaginations. Why not open up Fort Dix and get people in here, like we did for the Kosovars? Why just insist that the pace can't be picked up under the current constructs? Change the constructs!"

Looking at the global refugee crisis more widely, many in the "refugee community"—as advocates, aid workers, attorneys, and policy wonks have come to be known—are trying to push for broad new paradigms even as they do what they can to offer some concrete assistance to genuinely suffering people under the existing rules. "The system is deeply flawed," Arthur Helton explains. "It's built on the assumption that after a crisis abates, it will never be used again, so it never gets ready to do things in a proactive way." It's not enough to "warehouse people" or to "administer misery," he argues. What is more, adds Limón, military actions and foreign policy decisions—and economic globalization, one may well add—often produce vast migrations, and those effects ought to be taken into account. How could the U.S. not have anticipated, for example, that Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic's "ethnic cleansing" and NATO's bombing of Kosovo would send hordes of civilians running toward safety in Macedonia?

Of course, plucking, say, 3000 refugees out of a camp of 50,000 makes a tremendous difference to those 3000, but it doesn't solve the crisis. Says one refugee worker in southern Africa, "Providing for some resettlement and funding UNHCR so they can buy food and blankets for the camps is the only way the U.S. is involved in addressing the deprivations of this continent." It's not only a humanitarian cop-out, critics say, it is politically shortsighted.

"For 20 years we ignored 3 to 4 million Afghan refugees," notes Limón. "Things got so destabilized that it became easy for bin Laden and his buddies to go in and take advantage. If you don't give people a place to put down roots and live a life, it eventually comes back to bite you."

At the heart of the trouble with the half-century-old model for assisting refugees is the very definition of the term. The UN regards only those who have fled their countries as refugees, for example, though today, tens of millions of people are displaced and living in danger and squalor within the borders of their home nations. What is more, those "merely" seeking a better life—economic migrants—are not regarded as requiring assistance at all, even though lack of work opportunities or near starvation can amount, arguably, to a form of persecution.

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