Refugees Without a Refuge: US Starts to Pull Up Drawbridge

Asylum seekers receive a cold shoulder with the rise of anti-immigrant mood

TWO years ago, Farhia's house was bombed after her husband, a United Nations employee, ran afoul of Somalia's most powerful warlord. Fearing that her life was in danger, she fled to the United States and applied for asylum.

After being held for six months in a detention center, along with a convicted drug dealer, her appeal was denied. Forced to leave the US, she is now a ''refugee in orbit,'' with no safe place to call home.

''This is a case that clearly would have been accepted five years ago,'' says Elisa Massimino at the Washington office of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, which represents asylum-seekers like Farhia. ''The fact that it wasn't is evidence that what constitutes a 'refugee' has been circumscribed by a government and public that are far less generous toward immigrants.''

The United States, a nation that once opened its arms to refugees, has begun holding them at arms' length.

Experts say the more restrictive criteria now being used to screen asylum seekers largely reflect the end of the cold war. Refugees are no longer valued as pawns in the ideological battle against communism.

US officials, meanwhile, have little appetite for another wave of asylum-seekers so soon after digesting the last, mainly from Vietnam and the Soviet Union.

The changing attitude toward those seeking refuge in the US has prompted Washington to accept fewer of them, even as more try to escape political violence and abject poverty. For the backlog of 425,000 asylum-seekers outside the US hoping to be designated for resettlement by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), analysts say, the future looks bleak.

''Politically, this is a watershed moment for [US] refugee policy,'' says Harold Koh, a Yale University law professor who argued a landmark case before the Supreme Court in 1993 involving Haitian refugees.

Dr. Koh also cites the less permissive mode of Congress and the courts, a weakened president who is vulnerable to attack from anti-immigration forces, a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment at home, and financially strapped states whose leaders will not make refugees a funding priority when Washington gives them the option to choose how to spend federal funds.

A refugee is defined by the UN as any person who has a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinions.

Refugees make up no more than 1/10th of the number of people who -- mostly to improve economic opportunities or to join family members abroad -- no longer live in their countries of origin. The UN estimates that there may be 10 times more internal migrants -- those who have left their homes for reasons of convenience or duress -- than external, or international, migrants.

When the cold war ended, experts predicted that the refugee crisis would ease substantially, and that huge refugee populations -- like Afghans in Pakistan or Cambodians in Thailand -- would return home. One UN official predicted that the 1990s would be the ''decade of repatriation.''

Instead, new crises have replaced old ones, as the end of the structured era of the cold war has opened the door to dozens of ethnic conflicts and civil wars in countries ranging from Georgia to Angola that are now the main generators of refugees and internally displaced persons.

But even as the number of people in search of safe havens is rising, the doors in the US are closing. The trend could be reinforced if the INS follows its new practice of basing the current year's acceptance on the previous year's intake of refugees, rather than on actual demand.

The refugee issue could prove explosive for the 1996 presidential campaign, especially in Florida and California, the hoped-for destination of thousands of additional Cuban, Haitian, and Indochinese asylum-seekers.

For 1994, the US ceiling for refugees was 121,000. But just over 112,500 were accepted. The bulk came from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, followed by East Asia, Latin and Caribbean countries, the Middle East, and Africa. This year, the proposed overall ceiling drops to 112,000.

More than 50 million people are considered to be at risk of political persecution around the world, including between 17 and 23 million actual refugees who have crossed international borders and at least 25 million people -- like some of the Bosnians living in UN-designated ''safe havens'' -- who are displaced within their own countries.

Hundreds of thousands more -- such as the estimated 500,000 Iraqis in Iran -- live in refugee-like situations in countries where they remain undocumented because the government does not recognize them as refugees.

According to the World Bank Atlas published in January, the countries that take in most of the world's refugees are among the world's poorest. Ethiopia, the East African nation that is now home to almost 500,000 refugees, has one of the world's lowest per capita incomes, a meager $100. Zaire, which has taken in 1.5 million refugees -- more than 10 times as many as the US -- has only 1/30th of the US's per capita income.

Kathleen Newland of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, among other migration experts, says the lower tolerance for asylum-seekers in the US -- and in many other receiving nations around the world -- can be attributed to three factors.

r The end of the cold war. Refugees were usually welcomed by Western countries during the cold war because they were fleeing communist-ruled countries.

''They were valued as voting with their feet and scoring points in the ideological battle between the free and communist worlds,'' says Bill Frelick, a senior policy analyst at the US Committee for Refugees, a private humanitarian agency in Washington.

But since the end of the cold war, the US and other nations have become noticeably less hospitable.

Last year, for example, Pakistan closed its borders to refugees from Afghanistan's bloody civil war. Southeast Asia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia have all begun leaning on Vietnamese refugees and asylum-seekers to return home. Germany, meanwhile, has changed its Constitution to restrict the right to seek asylum, resulting in a precipitous drop in the number of acceptances.

At the same time, receiving nations have become far less insistent that governments allow persecuted citizens to leave.

''When communist regimes were preventing people from leaving, we made it a cornerstone of our foreign policy to secure the right for them to leave,'' notes Mr. Frelick. ''Now we're not so principled about the right to leave because the right to leave has a corollary: People have to go somewhere.''

The right to leave has a new corollary, as well. US policymakers have concluded that dictators -- like Cuba's Fidel Castro Ruz -- stand to gain more than they lose by disgorging political dissidents.

r US policy toward repressive regimes. Experts cite a lack of US resolve to eliminate conditions that produce refugees in the first place -- by combating repressive regimes with military interventions or with investments in democratic institutions.

A small contingent of international peacekeeping forces could have prevented the mass genocide in Rwanda that also produced an estimated 1 million refugees, some experts say. On the other hand, when the US toppled the regime of Haitian strongman Raoul Cedras, 15,000 Haitian refugees voluntarily repatriated.

The advent of Republican majorities in the US House and Senate, meanwhile, makes it even more unlikely that the US will undertake the kind of ''nation-building'' operations abroad that could help reduce political repression -- monitoring elections, helping write constitutions, and setting up police and justice systems.

r The blurring of the distinction between refugees and illegal immigrants. Refugees suffer from guilt by association with the wave of undocumented aliens that has produced an anti-immigrant backlash in the US.

''Given the general tenor of the times, it's going to be a lot tougher than before'' for refugees to make their way into the US, says Joel Kotkin, a writer on immigration issues and a senior fellow at the Center for the New West in Denver. ''We have become a meaner, harsher country, far less likely to want to make exceptions for people.''

The White House is currently reassessing US refugee policy based on political and economic considerations. A senior administration official says that there is no pressure from average American voters to accept more refugees.

A more restrictive policy is appropriate, he adds, because it saves the lives of those who could otherwise perish in frantic attempts to pile onto boats and brave the seas; because it is necessary to control US borders; and because it distinguishes between those who genuinely need protection and those who simply seek better economic opportunities in the US.

Under conditions of violence, oppression, and poverty, ''people leave for a variety of reasons,'' he says. ''To discourage that kind of flight is a legitimate policy objective, because it helps us to avoid massive departures.'' The cost of that policy, the official says, ''pales in comparison to the cost of a massive influx of those coming into the US.''

In this restrictive political environment, ''Clinton has been more conservative on this than either Presidents Bush or Reagan,'' says Yale's Koh.

Kotkin cites the plight of 4,000 Haitians (all of whom were repatriated from a US military camp at Cuba's Guantanamo Bay by Jan. 15) and 32,000 Cuban refugees in camps in Guantanamo and Panama who have been denied the chance to apply for safe haven in the US.

Congressional critics have also lumped refugees together with the burgeoning number of undocumented immigrants, many of whom slip into the US welfare system and drain government budgets.

The current overall budget for US refugee assistance is $704.3 million, $414 million of which is earmarked for Department of Health and Human Services resettlement programs. It covers medical services, employment assistance/job training, psychological and social counseling and preventative health, and family support payments to states to help defray the costs of welfare.

Some $170 million is allocated to the State Department, which processes refugees overseas, conducts orientation programs, transports them to the US, and helps to place them in communities around the country. Another $15 million goes to the INS for its overseas interviewing and processing. The average annual government expenditure per refugee is $700.

The US has demonstrated an interest handing off its responsibility for managing refugee crises to multilateral institutions, such as the UN. But ''handing over the tasks without handing over the [financial and political] resources to fulfill them can only be seen as an evasion of responsibility,'' Newland says.

While most of the debate on refugees tends to focus on the costs to the US government, experts like Newland point to the role played by specific ethnic and national groups in the US. Some -- like Miami's vibrant Cuban community -- are financially and culturally prepared to absorb refugees. Community organizations, financed by contributions from earlier and now successful immigrants, offer a wide range of housing and social services.

Moreover, statistics indicate that most refugees eventually become economically self-sufficient. Most do not become life-long welfare recipients, Newland says. Relatively high welfare utilization rates are confined to small groups -- such as the Hmong tribal people from the rural highlands of Laos -- who have had greater difficulty adapting to modernized urban life in the US.

Some experts say that human costs are associated with raising the barriers to refugees. ''The Clinton administration is mistaking refugees or the symptom, with the problem, which are the conditions -- repression caused by [Cuba's] Castro or the military junta in Haiti -- that drove these people out in the first place,'' Koh says.

Treating refugees as the problem, he adds, means that the ''administration has to deny that abuses are continuing, otherwise why would it be justified in refusing their requests to come to the US and sending them back?'' The base at Guantanamo, Koh says, ''has become a reverse Ellis Island, where people are held indefinitely and are only re-processed out.''

As Bill Frelick notes, the favored ''solution'' to the refugee problem has become erecting high walls to keep refugees out. That includes interdicting Haitians, diverting Chinese boat people, tightening standards for granting asylum status, and speeding up the identification of undocumented asylum-seekers. ''With barriers like this being erected, it's an open question whether the persecuted will be able to become refugees at all.''

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