African refugee process frozen
Mon Jun 10,10:18 AM ET
By Oscar Avila
When the U.S. government made African refugees its top resettlement priority last year, scores of Sudan's "lost boys" who
grew up in refugee camps found a home in Chicago.
This year, however, the United States has taken in fewer refugees from Africa than from any other region. In Illinois, only about 20 African refugees have arrived this fiscal year, even though state officials had planned to resettle about 1,000 by the end of September.
The admission of refugees--displaced persons fleeing persecution in their home countries--resumed in November after being halted following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But the African influx has virtually dried up because of tighter security checks and the reluctance of U.S. officials to conduct interviews in isolated refugee camps.
Government officials say they expect African resettlement to pick up this summer, but Joseph Alier Paul, who came to Chicago last year and lives in the Albany Park neighborhood, fears that his wife and infant daughter will be stuck in Africa indefinitely.
"The people who are still in the camps are struggling," said Paul, 21. "You think about your brothers and sisters, and you feel sad."
The United States set a cap of 22,000 African refugees for this fiscal year. But after the first seven months, only 651 had
made it in. Even the Middle East and South Asia, also areas of post-Sept. 11 security concerns, have produced about 50
percent more refugees.
After the attacks, agents with the Immigration and Naturalization Service were pulled temporarily from their duties, even at
U.S. embassies. Because of lingering safety concerns, the U.S. government has been unwilling to dispatch screeners to
African refugee camps.
That has frozen the process for many refugees because each applicant must go through an overseas interview with an INS
official after clearing dozens of other security checks.
Agents interviewed a round of applicants in Egypt, Ghana and Kenya this spring, so U.S. officials say they expect the
resettlement pipeline to flow again soon.
"We hope to bring the refugees over here as soon as we can. We're certainly committed to meeting our resettlement goals,"
said INS spokeswoman Kimberly Weissman.
Officials from resettlement groups say many African refugees have been unable to obtain State Department security
clearances because they are from countries thought to harbor terrorist networks, such as Somalia and Sudan. The U.S.
government has added a layer of clearance for young men from certain countries.
"That doesn't make sense," said Edwin Silverman, chief of the state's Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Services. "Logic
would indicate that someone's not going to spend 11 or 12 years in a refugee camp as part of a terrorist mission."
For the first time, Africa was expected to provide more refugees to Illinois this year than any other region. Illinois
traditionally has been a hub for the resettlement of refugees from Bosnia and the former Soviet Union.
Overall, Illinois resettled 264 refugees through April, about one-sixth the number admitted at this time last year. But the
slowdown for Africans is even more dramatic. And the agency World Relief-Chicago said it has resettled only one African
refugee this year, compared with about 60 a year ago.
A stark example of Africa's refugee crisis has been the "lost boys" of Sudan. When civil war flared in the 1980s, thousands
of young boys became separated from their parents and undertook a treacherous forced migration out of the country.
Paul left Sudan at the age of 6 and survived hunger, bandits and wild animals to find safety in Ethiopia. After civil war there
forced a brief return to Sudan, he and other "lost boys" made it to Kenya, where he spent nine years.
He met his wife, Martha, in the refugee camp. Seven months after Paul arrived in the United States in May 2001, his wife
gave birth to a daughter, Nyariak.
Paul said he hears from his wife about once a month when she is able to save enough money to place a call from the one
phone in the Kenyan refugee camp.
"For now, I'm just hanging on and waiting," Paul said.
Silverman called the situation "tragic." He and other officials worry that refugees from Africa, South Asia and the Middle
East are at risk as they wait in camps or "safe houses" for government approval.
Human Rights Watch reported that two Rwandan children awaiting resettlement in a Kenyan safe house were slain in April
in a killing believed to be driven by political retribution.
"People are suffering because of these delays. These aren't safe locations," said Virginia Koch, associate director for refugee
and immigrant community services for Heartland Alliance, another agency that assists in resettlement.
The refugees' influx into Chicago has helped create thriving African enclaves in Uptown and Rogers Park with plans under
way for a pan-African community association similar to those assisting Bosnian, Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees.
Resettlement officials want to expedite the process of U.S. interviews in Africa through such means as videoconferencing as
well as a new task force linking non-profit agencies, the INS and the State Department.
Officials also want the State Department to provide greater leniency for applicants who have completed security checks,
particularly women and young children.
"The administration needs to demonstrate that they are committed to Africa," said Dori Dinsmore, executive director of
World Relief-Chicago. "It's going to take some creativity, but it's still possible."