Monday, July 21, 2003

You Keep A-knockin’ but You Can’t Come In

Two recent articles -- one in the May 24–May 30 issue of the Economist, and one on the front page of the July 20 New York Times -- report on current trends in U.S. policy toward refugees. The outlook, I’d say, is less than rosy.

Both pieces take as their jumping-off point the recent arrival of the first Somali Bantus in cities such as Phoenix, Tucson, and Salt Lake City; some 12,000 of them are slated to enter the U.S. in the next two years, under quotas set by the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

The Economist article, a short affair of some 700 words titled “A home at last, but not for many,” declares bluntly: “America's refugee programme is in its worst state for two decades.”

Citing this year’s World Refugee Survey issued May 29 by the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR), the piece notes the downward turn in numbers in the past two years: “. . . only 27,100 refugees arrived in America in the fiscal year ending in September 2002, compared with 68,400 in 2001. Last year the government had given approval for 70,000 arrivals. Of the 50,000 ceiling set for this fiscal year, only 8,800 had been admitted by the end of March, the half-year mark.”

It’s hardly surprising that the number of refugees permitted to enter the U.S. has dropped steeply since Sept. 11, 2001. The time it takes for a security clearance has lengthened, sometimes to as much as several years, while asylum seekers wait to be given a "clean bill of health" by the CIA and the FBI, in addition to the usual going-over by the Department of State. (Although it is not mentioned in the USCR survey, the Economist claims, too, that some countries produce more than their fair share of fraudulent applicants, under the family-reunification program, and so presumably require closer attention from officials reviewing their cases.)

Apart from concerns connected with terrorism, though, there is also, the Economist writes, “a structural reason for the sluggishness.” While in the past the U.S. refugee program focused on a few persecuted groups (Soviet Jews and Vietnamese are the examples cited), the precious slots are now portioned out among more than 60 countries. As a result, even as the absolute number of refugees admitted to the U.S. has dropped, the extra time and effort needed to sort through such varied applications has boosted the cost of resettlement per refugee from $1,500, before September 11, to $4,000 today.

The drop in refugees admitted to the U.S., in turn, means there is less work to do for organizations that exist to assist them. And since their funding is based on the number of refugees they help, relief groups are, to put it mildly, bleeding jobs. To give just one example, again from the Economist: “Over at the Chicago office of World Relief half the jobs have gone as the agency's budget has fallen from $3m in 2001 to $1.6m. It has also had to close a ‘microenterprise centre’ that helped start 70 refugee-run businesses over two years, and a rehabilitation centre that helped disabled refugees.”

Eager to end on an optimistic note, the Economist's correspondent writes that the numbers of refugees expected to enter the U.S. in April and May -- 2,500 and 3,000, respectively -- were “the highest monthly totals since the terrorist attacks of September 11th.”

The New York Times piece, "U.S. a Place of Miracles for Somali Refugees," by Rachel L. Swarns, is more feature-y than the Economist's, fleshy with details from the daily lives of the Yarrows and the Edows, two Somali Bantu families recently resettled in Tucson, Arizona.

There is the amazement at running water, refrigerators, and flush toilets. There is the great relief at living in a place where bullets and death are not constantly, literally, at the door. There is the difficulty of integrating into an economy that is still soaked from the bursting of the '90s Internet bubble. And there is the occasional resistance to refugees in the communities where they are placed, by those who fear them because of their skin color, culture, or language, or because of the strain they expect the refugees to place on their social services.

Statistically speaking, the Times article takes a longer-term view than does the Economist, noting, for instance: “Over the past decade, State Department officials have increasingly shifted their focus toward Africa as wars there have displaced millions of people. [. . .] State Department statistics show that Africans made up 3 percent of the refugees resettled in the United States in the 1990 fiscal year. By 2001, that figure was nearly 30 percent.”

Swarns avoids judgmental language in describing U.S. refugee policy (of course this is typical of Times articles, unlike those of the Economist, which nearly always contain a clearly stated opinion on the issue at hand). But the graphic that accompanies her piece makes plain the same downward trend highlighted in the Economist:

Here is a similar graphic from the Economist:

Data from the State Department for the past 12 years (1990-2002) show a peak of roughly 125,000 in 1992, followed by a big drop in ’96, to less than 75,000, and then another plunge in 2002, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC.

This same table also neatly illustrates the changing geographic composition of refugees entering the U.S. in the last decade, as noted above.

Neither the Economist reporter nor Rachel Swarns of the New York Times chose to give their dispatches a happy ending. Reading the details of U.S. refugee policy, and the recommendations on said policy from the U.S. Committee for Refugees, it is easy to understand why. I myself have never liked happy endings as entertainment; but this, after all, is real life.