No Safe Haven

Refugee policy is dictated by political objectives, not humanitarian principles.

By Will Pittz Mar 15, 2002

A million Afghans joined the ranks of one of the world’s largest and most desperate refugee populations as a result of U.S. retaliation against their country. Despite the urgency of this humanitarian crisis and the U.S. role in it, President Bush responded by decreasing, not increasing, the number of refugees that will be permitted to enter the U.S. this year. Together with the intensification of security screenings, this will mean that only 30,000 to 50,000 refugees worldwide will receive American sanctuary. A deeper look into U.S. refugee aid since the Cold War reveals that this closing of the door on refugees is much less about security than it is about racial discrimination.

According to the State Department, a refugee is "a person who is outside his/her country and is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of a well-founded fear that she/he will be persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group." In January 2001, the U.S. Committee on Refugees estimated that14.5 million refugees worldwide met the State Department’s definition. Under pressure from advocacy groups, Congress apportions a certain number of U.S. refugee slots to different regions of the globe, subject to the President’s approval. While 94 percent of the world’s refugees are people of color, half of all refugees admitted to the U.S. in 2001 were white–either from the Balkan conflict or Jews from the former Soviet Union.

The preferential treatment of white refugees is not new. When reflecting on the refugee policy in 1982, the National Council of Churches told the New York Times, "We are saying that our doors are open only to those who are white, skilled, and fleeing from socialist governments." While a biased apportionment of refugees has been maintained since the Cold War, Arab refugees have been mostly rejected. More than half of the world’s refugees come from Arab countries, particularly Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Yet only 13 percent of last year’s refugee apportionments were from this region.

It’s About Racism

After the Gulf War, there were 30,000 Iraqi refugees who had opposed Saddam Hussein. They were left in squalid Saudi Arabian camps. "To take 15,000 refugees at that time would have been a piece of cake," recalls Lavinia Limon, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement under the Clinton administration and the current director of Immigrant and Refugee Services of America. "There was no political will. [President] Bush leafleted the country [Iraq], telling people to rise up against Saddam. It was an implicit promise, and we didn’t follow through."

There has been a steady flow of refugees out of Iraq since U.S. sanctions began, but the U.S. has deemed them economic migrants and thus disqualifies them from refugee status. This is doubly ironic, since western governments widely consider Saddam to be one of the world’s most oppressive leaders. "It’s about racism," says Limon. "It’s cultural, it’s religious, it’s perceptions of who Middle Easterners are. They’re not people we feel comfortable with."

That the U.S. and other wealthy nations would discriminate against Afghan refugees surely comes as no surprise to African refugees, who know what it is like to be lowest on the humanitarian priority list. In May of 1999, the Los Angeles Times reported on the disparities in the treatment of refugees of ethnic conflicts in Africa and in Eastern Europe. Some camps for Eritrean and Somalian refugees had one doctor per 100,000 refugees, while many Balkan camps had one doctor per 700 people, a ratio better than that of many U.S. cities. European refugee camps had children’s centers, movie theaters, abundant clean water, and diets that included oranges, milk, chicken, cheese, and tarts. In African camps, up to 6,000 people died each day of disease and malnutrition as the only food available was wheat or sorghum. The cause for this horror is clear. U.N. spending in Kosovo was $1.23 a day per refugee, compared to 11 cents in Africa.

Official responses to these disparities reveal that in the eyes of the Western world, people of color are less worthy of humanitarian assistance. As the L.A. Times reported, "U.N. officials and aid workers say they must give European refugees used to cappuccino and CNN a higher standard of living to maintain the refugees’ sense of dignity…. That contrasts with Africa, where refugees…have to make most of their food from scratch–a practice reflecting the simpler lifestyles of the area, U.N. officials say." What these officials are really saying is that because these white refugees have always been relatively privileged, they deserve to be treated as human beings; since African refugees live "primitive lifestyles," they are savages, and the rest of the world can ignore their malnourishment and death.

Humanitarian Self-Interest

Conservative Harvard professor and former Cuban refugee, Jorge Borjas, admits, "Despite the veneer of humanitarianism that envelops most discussions of refugee policy… the determination of refugee status mostly reflects the objectives of American foreign policy and domestic political forces." U.S. refugee admittance reached its height of 142,000 per year during the Cold War in the 1980s. Since then, however, the number has steadily declined. Dr. Tse Haye Teferra, executive director of Ethiopian Community Development Council, a Washington, D.C. based African resettlement agency, explains, "The government feels there is no longer a need to have a high number of refugees. The program was really focused on needs of Southeast Asia and the former Soviet Union."

Where refugee policy was once a powerful weapon, albeit symbolic, in the war against communism, it is much less potent in the war against terrorism. Admitting Arab refugees threatens the public image of a government protecting its citizens from people who have been stereotyped as terrorists. "After September 11, they decided to have the refugee program undergo a security review," explains Limon. "I find that ironic, considering refugees undergo the most rigorous screening of any group of people that come in to this country. You can’t stop tourists, business travelers, or students from coming to the U.S. Hotels, restaurants, businesses, and universities, they all have huge interests at stake. But because refugees are so controlled, you can stop it." The search for quick fixes to protect the country from potential terrorist threats has closed the door on many refugees and put the rest under unnecessary scrutiny.

Security measures are already jeopardizing the lives of thousands of refugees. Refugees complete two to three interviews in refugee camps with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the Department of State, and an immigration official, before undergoing a security check in Washington. After September 11, the INS and State Department mandated that this security check should be more rigorous for certain nationalities, which remain classified. The security clearance must be completed prior to an immigration officer’s interview. Resettlement organizations estimate this may add anywhere from a week to three months to the process.

"No refugees have come since October," says Teffera, who expects that due to increased security demands, African resettlement will fall far short of the 22,000 refugee limit. "In Africa you have 4 million refugees that are in a very dire situation. People are living in very unhealthy conditions." As a result of post-September 11 security measures that do little to improve real security, thousands of refugees of color who would have resettled in the U.S. are suffering and dying.

President Reagan once declared, "Can we doubt that a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe freely: Jews and Christians enduring persecution behind the Iron Curtain, the boat people of Southeast Asia… the freedom fighters of Afghanistan?" How hollow these words would sound to Afghan refugees both neglected by the U.S. and recently displaced by U.S. bombs. Until this rhetoric is converted into reality for all people, it is clear that humanitarian responsibility means something different on opposite sides of the color line.