Most of the 13 million registered refugees around the world are seeking repatriation or resettlement in host countries like the United States. But immediately after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the American refugee resettlement program shut down for three months, stranding thousands in camps or third countries. The resettlement program has resumed, but tighter screening rules and security issues have slowed applicant processing.
The numbers tell the story: In the year before the terrorist attacks, the United States admitted more than 68,000 refugees. The ceiling for refugee resettlement that year was 70,000.
In the year after the attacks, fewer than 28,000 refugees entered the United States. During the past eight months, fewer than 16,000 have been admitted.
The diminishing numbers frustrate refugee advocates like Lavinia Limon of the U.S. Committee for Refugees. "The urgency of insuring domestic security has fueled a wariness of foreigners in general and refugees in specific," she said, "so that the admission of refugees to the United States is at its lowest point in over 30 years."
The State Department's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration, Kelly Ryan, agrees the numbers are low. But she says they do not tell the whole story.
"We faced several obstacles since 9/11 that were not so obvious prior to it," said Ms. Ryan. "The first is the importance of the security checks. We are working very hard that those get accomplished much more quickly than they have in the past to make sure they have all the information necessary to make sure the person is who they say they are and has not done something that would make them not a refugee, and therefore not a person who could come to the United States."
Ms. Ryan explained that refugees are referred to the U.S. government through the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, American embassies and international resettlement agencies. American officers routinely interview refugees outside the country they are fleeing with only a few exceptions.
After 9/11, Ms. Ryan said, some areas of the world were considered too dangerous to send U.S. officials to screen potential refugees.
"Refugee admissions, by its nature, involves trying to find people in dangerous situations or unhealthy situations or in some circumstances at risk of being returned," said the State Dept. official. "That is the nature of the game. Those who go out there understand that. What we have been doing and what we need to do is try to minimize any risk to the refugee and to the officer to make sure the process works safely."
Ms. Ryan says travel restrictions for refugee officers are now being eased. The newly-created Department of Homeland Security is also talking about a special refugee corps that would deal with resettlement issues.
Andrew Schoenholtz directs refugee law and policy studies at Georgetown University's Institute for International Migration Studies. He says it appears the U.S. government is sending a false signal that it does not consider the plight of refugees a priority concern.
"To get the message back on track - that we are serious about refugee protection - I think we have to reform the way in which we do our interviewing and our security checks," said Mr. Schoenholtz. "And reform in this sense means you can have reasonable safety parameters for the interviewers and you can have reasonable security checks to make sure individuals are not any threat to the United States, but they have to be done in a timely fashion."
Mr. Schoenholtz underlines the need for a more creative approach to the obstacles that are causing the delays.
Refugee worker Lavinia Limon points out the need for lengthy security checks may be exaggerated. "Refugees have always been the most scrutinized people to come to the United States, even before 9/11. Unlike students and tourists and businessmen, they always underwent security checks," she said.
Refugees International President Ken Bacon says the cutbacks in the resettlement program deprives refugees of hope and may trap them in repressive countries.
And he said it also affects the resources of the 400 non-government agencies enlisted by the government to help newly-arrived refugees integrate into American society.
"It is having a terrible affect on these agencies, which have put together staffs and expertise which over the years have helped re-settle millions of refugees in the United States," said Mr. Bacon. "They are paid on the basis of the number of people they resettle, and through no fault of their own the resettlement numbers have dropped dramatically."
Mr. Bacon says many agencies have been forced to cut their staff and resources, which makes it harder for them to fulfill their mission.
State Department official Kelly Ryan points out that the United States remains one of the world's largest refugee safe havens, despite what she considers a temporary setback. "We are a nation of refugees and migrants. and that is a very important and powerful tradition we must continue to uphold. How we do our work, get access to the program and how quickly people move through the process can always be improved," said Ms. Ryan.
About 2.5 million refugees from more than 80 countries have been resettled in the United States since 1975.
Vietnamese refugees represent the largest group to be resettled in the United States in the past two decades. This year, the first of 12,000 Somali Bantu refugees started arriving in the United States after decades of living in camps along the Somali-Kenyan border.