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Would-Be Immigrants to U.S. in an Uncertain Holding Pattern

Security: Scrutiny after 9/11 prevents thousands living in refugee camps from starting new lives.

September 03, 2002|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Tightened security imposed after Sept. 11 has, at least temporarily, prevented thousands of people living in squalid refugee camps from starting new lives in the United States.

Increased scrutiny of applicants has produced a sharp decline in the number of refugees--particularly Muslims--accepted by the State Department for U.S. resettlement.

Officials expect that only half, at best, of the 70,000 refugees projected for resettlement during the year ending Sept. 30 will arrive in the country.

Before the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, many of those in limbo had been approved for travel to the U.S.

And as one outgrowth of the new concern over terrorism, a higher percentage of Muslims have remained on the waiting list for resettlement than refugees of any other category.

The ceiling for the Muslim-rich Near East and South Asia region is 15,000, but with less than a month left in the fiscal year, only 2,539 had been admitted from those areas, according to official figures.

During the last fiscal year, 12,060 refugees from these regions were accepted, compared with a ceiling of 12,500.

As part of post-Sept. 11 security measures, all male refugees between ages 15 and 50 from Muslim countries who are candidates for resettlement must undergo FBI scrutiny.

The FBI issues "security advisory opinions" on each candidate to determine whether any could pose a security risk. The same check is given to applicants for U.S. visas from Muslim countries.

The declining number of admissions of Muslims and non-Muslims has severe implications for those forced to wait. Virtually all have fled persecution and now are confined to a dreary and sometimes dangerous life at camps sponsored by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Of the world's 12 million refugees, the largest number are in Africa. Five of the eight leading refugee-producing countries are in Africa. That continent also is the region with the highest U.S. ceiling for refugee resettlement: 22,000 for the current fiscal year.

Islamic countries that have produced the most refugees are Afghanistan, Sudan and Iraq.

Gene Dewey, the State Department's top official for refugees, said he is hopeful that procedures can be streamlined.

"The task is to balance the need to provide protection to as many as possible who need protection and to protect the people of the United States from evildoers," he said.

He acknowledged that racial profiling is a component of the mandatory FBI evaluation of Muslim male refugee candidates.

"If it takes profiling, then that's what you have to do," Dewey said. "You know what the vulnerable sources are. So it's something you can't take a risk with."

Lavinia Limon, executive director of the private U.S. Committee for Refugees, acknowledges that security concerns are important but suggests they could be exaggerated in the case of refugees.

"In the last 35 years, 2 million refugees have been admitted to the United States," she said. "So far none have been implicated in terrorist acts. The idea of using the refugee program to come to the U.S. for terrorism is farfetched."

She said the purpose of the refugee program is to rescue people who are fleeing terror.

She noted that people who are forced out of their own countries gain U.N. designation as refugees by making the case that "they have experienced repression and would experience it all over again if they are forced to return."

Dan Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-immigration group, says stricter security for refugee admissions is justified.

"The reason why flow is slow is the need to make sure we know who we are dealing with," he said.

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