A refugee gatekeeper's lament

A former UN resettlement interviewer talks about the difficult task of looking in a refugee's eyes and deciding yes or no.

Mary Knox Merrill / The Christian Science Monitor
Mugungu 2, a UN camp in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, houses 15,000 refugees seeking haven from conflict.

Rania Rampersad spent the summer after her first year of law school in Dadaab, Kenya, near the border with Somalia. It was the kind of place travel guides advise against visiting: Remote, arid, and full of shifta, bandits from the ongoing war in Somalia.

The Georgetown University student had gone to help resettle a few of the 170,000 refugees living in a United Nations camp in 2007. Her job was to screen out those who didn't qualify for resettlement to the US.

So who was automatically out? Combatants and militants, of course, and "absolutely no polygamists." But the rule that required most of her time, says Ms. Rampersad, was: no liars. It's no simple moral equation. Few refugees are ever called for a resettlement interview, so there's incentive to fudge the truth. Sometimes, that fudging is benign. "A lot of people lie [when entering the camp] and say they have more people in their family than they do, to get more rations," she says. "They don't have enough food.... But the fraud does exclude them from being resettled."

Often, refugees try to evade their past untruths - or their entire pasts. One who briefly went back to Somalia from the camp might have looked like a mercenary to an interviewer, so he said he'd gone to get his goats. He couldn't explain why he'd take such a risk for goats.

"When somebody gives you an off-the-wall answer, you kind of know they're trying to pull one over on you,"says Rampersad.

She learned that Somalis typically have many children in succession. A gap suggests a child may have died or a husband may have been gone. "They either look sad and say, He died of cholera,' or they say, My husband was visiting family,' " she says. The latter invites further questions that may disqualify him, for militarism.Rampersad recalls a couple whose honesty cost them their ticket west. She asked if they'd ever obtained a document illegally. "This guy totally spilled his guts," she says of his admission that he got a Kenyan passport so he could work. "To see this guy's face go from so hopeful - I had just shattered all of his dreams.... He was 24 and had a young wife, and I thought, This could totally be me if the tables were turned.' "- Jina Moore, correspondent

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