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As Bad As It Gets

Hard times for refugees post 9-11


In spite of growing need and a backlog of refugees awaiting processing and passage to the United States, the US Committee for Refugees reports that the Bush administration has reduced refugee admissions for fiscal year 2003.

Three years ago, permits allowing parents, unmarried children and spouses overseas to join their close relatives in the United States were available to 15 nationalities, 13 of them African. In 2001, six African nationalities were eliminated along with Bosnians (2000), Iranians and Iraqis. Angolans and Sierra Leoneans are due to be cut in 2003.

Forty-three thousand admission spaces were lost in 2002 in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, but admissions have not increased this year to make up for the backlog of waiting refugees.

On Sept. 27 of last year, more than 40 members of Congress submitted letters to President Bush, asking him to increase the number of refugees the administration would admit in 2003.

"Tens of thousands of refugees have been stranded overseas in places of danger or squalid refugee camps, and have not been able to find a new secure future in the U.S. during this past year. These unused spaces are in essence like unused lifeboats on a sinking ship," the letter said.

"... the United States has always been, and continues to be, a place of refuge and sanctuary for those fleeing religious and political persecution and other hardships," the letter continued. "Those refugees who could not be rescued in FY 2002 should not suffer added hardships. By admitting over 100,000 refugees in FY 2003, you could rescue those refugees and ensure that those who are waiting to enter in the coming year are not further delayed."

The letter was signed by a politically diverse group including Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, and recently appointed GOP Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. (Ironically, Sen. Frist, a physician who helped start a hospital in southern Sudan where he has visited twice a year for the past few years, is forbidden to travel there now that his status in the Senate has elevated to Majority Leader.)

Citing difficulties of added security measures, restrictions on travel by U.S. officials for processing, and delays caused directly by the Sept. 11 attacks, the State Department and the Bush White House admitted 27,000 refugees in 2002, 43,000 short of that year's immigration goal.

This year, according to the US Committee for Refugees report, it is estimated that around 40,000 refugees will be resettled to the United States, leaving last year's refugees-in-waiting and some 30,000 others in limbo.

Meanwhile, the situation for Sudanese in Sudan and in refugee camps worsens.

On Sept. 27, 2002, the government of Sudan, for the ninth time in 14 years, banned emergency humanitarian relief to citizens for almost two months, causing a massive evacuation of relief workers.

A Nov. 2002 report of the U.S. Committee for Refugees cites a financial crisis for programs to assist and protect refugees worldwide. Funding by donor nations, including the United States, has been inadequate as the need has grown.

UNHCR (United National High Commissioner for Refugees) reports a funding shortfall of nearly $200 million. Dozens of private international organizations confront similar funding problems.

Part of the shortfall is directly related to the U.S. response to the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, with aid agencies struggling to assist millions of refugees from Afghanistan and bracing for the potential of hundreds of thousands of new refugees from Iraq if U.S. military action there moves forward.

Examples of the impact of the shortfall on Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia and Kenya are sobering:

In Kenya, budget constraints forced a 25 percent cut in food rations for up to 80,000 Sudanese refugees. Financial constraints may force UNHCR to stop supplying firewood to thousands of Sudanese refugee women in camps in Kenya, thereby potentially exposing them to rape and robbery while they leave refugee camps to collect firewood individually.

Health workers have cancelled a counseling program for Somali and Sudanese refugee women victimized by rape and other violence.

Also in Kenya, aid agencies no longer have funds needed to hospitalize seriously ill refugee patients. Plans to purchase a new ambulance to service 80,000 Sudanese refugees have been cancelled and aid workers have been forced to reduce medicines, including elimination of all dental care, due to lack of funds. One of four health clinics for the refugee population is expected to close.

A rehabilitation program geared to helping large numbers of disabled Sudanese refugees has been cancelled because of a $70,000 shortfall.

(Source: US Committee for Refugees, Jeff Drumtra. For more information, see

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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