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UN Urges Revamp of US Refugee Policy

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says the United States remains the most welcoming nation for displaced people and those fleeing oppression and conflict, but that America's treatment of asylum-seekers can be improved.

For decades, the United States has accepted more refugees than any other nation on earth, as many as 70,000 a year. The head of the U.N. refugee agency, Antonio Guterres, praised America's commitment to asylum-seekers on the 30th anniversary of the 1980 U.S. Refugee Act, which established a systematic basis for admitting people on humanitarian grounds.

"The United States is still one of the very few countries in which refugee protection is a popular cause. We rely on the people of the United States for the daily example of commitment and compassion," he said. "Since the promulgation of the Refugee Act, the United States has granted asylum to more than 500,000 [people] and resettled nearly three-million refugees from overseas. Each of these people brings and enduring gratitude for hope restored and the capacity to contribute to the [new] community in which he lives," said Guterres.

Addressing a gathering of refugee advocates in Washington, Guterres said a good system can be made even better.

"More use could be made of alternatives to the detention of asylum-seekers. Places used for detention could be made less remote and [less] prison-like. More support could be provided to ensure asylum-seekers have legal representation," he said. "The asylum process in the United States is highly complex, and having a lawyer roughly doubles the chance of an asylum-seeker obtaining protection," he added.

This week, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont unveiled a bill that would extend asylum consideration to more people interdicted by the United States at sea, eliminate a one-year deadline for asylum-seekers to file a claim for protection, end a yearlong waiting period for refugees to apply for legal residency, and reduce some of the barriers to asylum that emerged after the terrorist attacks of 2001.

The impact of anti-terror efforts on America's refugee program is of particular interest to Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren of California.

"The expanded use of terrorism inadmissibility [denial of asylum] has caused problems for legitimate refugees who have nothing to do with terrorism. And that is an area of the law that needs reform," said Lofgren.

Other speakers, including several asylum-seekers from Iraq and elsewhere, said greater attention should be paid to the needs of new arrivals as they struggle to acclimate to life in the United States, learn English, and find employment.

Calls for reform appear to have the sympathy of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Refugees and Migration, Eric Schwartz, who describes the needs of the world's vulnerable populations as an enormous challenge.

"Modern-day conflicts commonly pit domestic ethnic groups against one another, with combatants and civilians dangerously intermingled," he said. "In the 30 years since the Refugee Act, we have witnessed genocide in Rwanda and Darfur, ethnic cleaning in the Balkans, and rape as a weapon of war in Central Africa. Governments hosting refugees or displaced persons are often uneasy at best, and hostile at worst, toward the notion of advancing [refugee] protection interests," said Schwartz.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates a worldwide total of more than 40-million people uprooted by conflict or persecution.