Tuesday November 20 2:13 PM ET
Lift Refugee Moratorium, Aid Groups Urge U.S.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Refugee resettlement groups in the United States are pleading with the Bush administration to end a freeze on admitting some 22,000 refugees stuck in limbo around the world, some of whom may be in grave danger.
The United States, the world's largest resettler of refugees, imposed a moratorium on accepting new refugees after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington that killed around 4,500 people. The government has been conducting a security review of procedures since then.
"The moratorium has left more than 22,000 people already approved for immigration to the United States, stranded. Many of these people remain in very dangerous conditions overseas," said Leonard Glickman, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the nation's oldest refugee processing organization.
Fifteen refugee resettlement agencies, including church and human rights groups, wrote to Bush on Oct. 29, urging him to resume the program as soon as possible.
"Among the 22,000 are victims of the Taliban, such as Afghan widows and single women and children in Pakistan," wrote Ralston Deffenbaugh, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service on behalf of the 15 organizations.
"We have no reliable information regarding the scope and status of the review. This lack of information seriously disrupts this unique public-private partnership and essential planning for services to refugees," Deffenbaugh said.
Bush administration officials gave no details of the review except to say that it was necessary for security reasons and the United States would resume accepting refugees as soon as feasible. Some refugee advocates expect a partial lifting of the moratorium soon, but say it is likely to remain in place for refugees from the Middle East.
"The whole issue of refugees is on hold for the moment pending the completion of a security review," said one official at the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The United States was supposed to accept 80,000 refugees in fiscal year 2001, which ended Sept. 30. Bush had been expected to issue a presidential determination setting the number for 2002 at 70,000 but has delayed doing so. Until he issues his determination, the flow of refugees cannot resume.
Those individuals stuck in the pipeline include around 6,000 from sub-Saharan Africa; 617 from Iran, mainly members of the minority Bahai religion; 97 from Lebanon, 962 from Pakistan and 1,600 from the Balkans.
Jewish groups are particularly upset that processing of refugees through Moscow, which continued normally after Sept. 11, was suspended on Oct. 11, leaving almost 2,000 people stuck in transit.
In a letter to Bush last week, 17 Jewish organizations complained they had been told that refugee processing might not resume until next January or February at the earliest, and then at a significantly reduced rate.
'BUREAUCRATIC FOOT DRAGGING'
"We are growing increasingly concerned that the continued moratorium is the result of bureaucratic foot-dragging rather than a careful implementation of security measures. The government has had plenty of time to review the security of its own refugee program,'' the letter said. The administration has not responded.
Kevin Appleby, director of migration programs for the Conference of Catholic Bishops, said refugees accepted for resettlement in the United States had already gone through a rigorous selection and vetting process, including security background checks.
"Many of these people are certainly at risk where they are now. The Afghans, many of whom are women, are in camps where there is support for the Taliban," Appleby said.
"The United States is the largest resettler of refugees in the world and we need to provide that leadership or other countries will also cut their programs,'' he said.
Susan Benesch of the Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights noted that the United States was still allowing people on business or student visas to enter the country, even though they had not undergone background checks.
"It looks to me like each individual part of the government is dragging its feet and delaying the process," she said.
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