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The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program Report on Recent Progress and Challenges, Including Security Screening Procedures

Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
July 26, 2011

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

I want to update you on issues relating to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).

As many of you know, I came into office with a strong commitment to strengthen our program, through which nearly 3 million refugees have been resettled in the United States since 1975. The program, authorized and strongly supported by the U.S. Congress over many decades, is one of the noblest U.S. expressions of international humanitarianism, and succeeds through the critical contributions of thousands of local communities and individuals around the nation – who open their homes and their hearts to new arrivals. Resettled refugees have succeeded and thrived in the United States in business, academia, government, the non-governmental community and elsewhere in public service and the private sector. Many resettled refugees work at the Department of State, including 11 employees who entered the country as refugee children many years ago and recently blogged about their experiences in a series for Dipnote.

We have taken a number of measures designed both to communicate our commitment to this program and to strengthen its components:

Public Engagement: Over the past two years, I have traveled to seven cities around the country – Fort Wayne, Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Salt Lake City, Portland, Phoenix and Denver – to signal our support for resettled refugees and to learn more about the challenges they confront. In addition, our Bureau's Principal Deputy, Dave Robinson, travels to refugee communities to visit with new arrivals and to meet with our non-governmental organization (NGO) partners. These trips, the pace of which has been unprecedented in the history of our bureau, are extraordinarily rewarding as they provide us with critical information that informs our work.

Reception and Placement: As you may know, the State Department is responsible for the initial package of assistance for newly arrived refugees, but that assistance had declined in real terms by more than 50% by the beginning of 2010. Thus, effective January 2010, the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) doubled the reception and placement grant provided to new arrivals and the local resettlement agencies that support them, from $900 per capita to $1800 per capita. Moreover, to avoid a reduction in the value of this grant over time, it is our intention to seek modest increases from one year to the next to account for inflation. 

Date: 07/27/2010 Description: A soon-to-be resettled Somali girl receives a guidebook to life in the United States prior to departure. Photo courtesy of Amina Egal - CWS, 2010.  CWS

A soon-to-be resettled Somali girl receives a guidebook to
life in the United States prior to departure.
Photo courtesy of Amina Egal – CWS, 2010.

Relationships with our Partners: The agencies that provide initial support for incoming refugees are critical partners to PRM and to the U.S. government, and we have sought to strengthen our dialogue with these groups and to enhance their capacity to do their jobs effectively. For example, we valued their recommendation to enhance the flexibility of the Reception and Placement grant, which informed our decision to enable our partners to reserve a portion of the per capita grant to serve refugees with the greatest needs.

Enhancing Refugee Resettlement Processing Capacity in Africa: Members of Congress and the NGO community have long expressed concerns about our limited capacity to process refugees from Africa, where refugee processing is extremely labor-intensive and time-consuming. Though we made considerable progress between fiscal years 2009 and 2010, with resettlement from Africa increasing from 9,670 in 2009 to 13,305 in 2010, arrivals have dropped in 2011 and significant challenges remain. Thus, we plan to augment our refugee coordination offices in the Horn of Africa and in Central Africa, which will further improve our capacity to resettle vulnerable refugees.

English-Language Training: From our visits to communities around the country, it is clear that the ability to speak, read, and write English is a major contributor to successful and rapid integration of refugees. For years, the conventional wisdom has been that the resettlement process overseas is too brief to permit effective English-language training, and that may indeed be the case. At the same time, it might also be possible to provide some basic English-language training that could significantly benefit an incoming refugee. To test this proposition, PRM will be piloting English-language training programs in Kenya, Thailand and Nepal. After assessing the results of this effort, we will consider the merits of a broad and more comprehensive program.

Date: 07/27/2011 Description: Two boys enjoy their new lives in Arizona.  Photo Courtesy of UNHCR


A cultural orientation course for Burmese refugees preparing for their new lives in the U.S.
Photo courtesy of IOM, 2010.

Reactivation of the "P-3" Component of our Refugee Program: The P-3 component of our refugee admissions program provides for refugee adjudications and resettlement of family members of previously admitted refugees. This P-3 component is important, as it provides protection to vulnerable people while also promoting the principle of family unification. It was suspended in 2008 due to concerns about fraud, and resuming the program has been a priority for me and for the PRM Bureau. We have sought to establish procedures that will permit resumption while ensuring the integrity of the program, and have consulted closely with the NGO community and others. While we believe that establishment of DNA testing will be necessary to permit resumption of the program, we have been seeking to implement such a program in a way that would not create financial burdens for genuine refugees – as testing can be expensive. We've worked this very carefully in consultation with civil society, and anticipate launching the second required public comment period in late summer or early fall, consistent with the Paperwork Reduction Act and its regulations. This will bring us one step closer to re-establishing the program. While we regret that this review process has taken so much time, we are optimistic that the program will resume shortly. 

Date: 06/15/2011 Description: A refugee girl who recently returned from Liberia to western Cote d'Ivoire receives food at an ICRC food distribution in a village along the Toulepleu-Guiglo axis.  Photo by Wendy Henning, PRM Program Officer

Although it is a critical resource for vulnerable persons who cannot return to their
homes or integrate into local communities where they have found refuge, our Refugee
Admissions Program is only one of the durable solutions for refugees who receive assistance through
PRM-supported programs. In this photo, a refugee girl who recently returned from Liberia to western
Cote d’Ivoire receives food at an ICRC food distribution in a village along the Toulepleu-Guiglo axis.
Photo by Wendy Henning, PRM Program Officer, June 2011

The White House Reform Effort: Since July 2009, the White House has led a multiagency effort designed to identify ways to enhance the effectiveness of the Refugee Admissions Program. This effort has included the Departments of State, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Homeland Security (DHS), as well as the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), national and local resettlement agencies, state refugee coordinators, refugee health coordinators, mutual assistance agencies, refugee service providers and advocates. As part of this effort, PRM has moved forward on a number of enhancements, such as ensuring that resettlement is used more strategically – to promote overall protection of refugees and other durable solutions; increasing the provision of pre-arrival information with partners; expanding and improving overseas cultural orientation; and enhancing the refugee placement process through quarterly consultations with stakeholders to discuss the range of issues that affect placement planning. These issues include information on prospective and current refugee populations slated for resettlement, the pipeline of refugee resettlement movements, overseas processing, funding and capacity of agencies and communities to receive refugees.

International Leadership on Resettlement: This past year PRM served as the Chair of the UNHCR-sponsored Working Group on Resettlement and the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement. We worked throughout the year with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 29 countries and many NGOs to improve the quality of resettlement throughout the world, bolster international response to emergency situations and expand the number of resettlement slots worldwide. We partnered with Refugee Council USA (RCUSA), the U.S. NGO focal point, to promote international support for resettlement for refugees fleeing Libya, as well as for resettlement of Iraqi and Afghan refugees. DHS led a special workshop for member countries, designed to promote the use of current technologies to safeguard resettlement programs from fraudulent applicants, and thereby ensure the preservation of valuable slots for genuine refugees. We also led expert groups focusing on integration issues facing resettlement countries, including how to best serve refugees with special needs. We were pleased with progress made during our chairmanship and applaud the collaboration of the U.S. NGO community in this effort.

Longer-Term Help for Refugees: Refugee-specific U.S. government support for resettled refugees is very modest, and our country’s emphasis on early self-sufficiency coincides with a more active role for NGOs in the integration process for refugees. Nonetheless, refugees do need some support during a transition period that inevitably will last beyond the many weeks covered by the initial Reception and Placement grant provided by the Department of State. And although our Department does not have responsibility for federal and state programs that provide such longer term support, we have been – and will continue to be – engaged in discussions with other agencies about the adequacy and effectiveness of such long term efforts. In this respect, we will soon be undertaking a PRM-supported study of intensive case management, which may provide a relatively low-cost option for enhancing the integration prospects over time for newly admitted refugees.

We're proud of all these efforts, as they reflect a commitment to sustain and strengthen the U.S. Refugee Admissions program. But we are also well aware of deep concern about a significant reduction in the number of refugees that will be resettled in the United States in 2011. While we do not yet know just how many new arrivals we will have, the number will be well below last year's figure of 73,311 – and well below the 2011 ceiling of 80,000 established by the President.

This reduction reflects processing challenges that have resulted from additional, multi-agency security screening measures that have recently been established, and which augment long-standing multi-agency clearance procedures that have long been in effect. The enhanced procedures are the product of an evolving understanding of security threats. We expect most, if not all, the new delays to be temporary, and processing has already picked up. Refugee arrivals in June were significantly higher than in the previous three months, and we expect even higher arrivals in the months ahead. Nonetheless, we understand that delays have imposed additional burdens and, in some cases, additional risks – particularly among those who seek to benefit from our in-country refugee resettlement program in Iraq. Through that program, Iraqis who remain in their country of origin but who may be at risk of persecution may apply for refugee resettlement in the United States. Last year, we resettled 3,762 from the in-country program in Iraq, and this year, the number is likely to be much lower.

The dilemma is clear: we have dual imperatives – promoting protection for Iraqis and ensuring against the entry of those who would post security threats to the United States. We cannot postpone implementation or delay security screening procedures that are effective, but those procedures inevitably take time and have slowed processing.

But that is not the end of the story, as we are actively engaged in efforts to address this substantial challenge. The efforts include working with other U.S. government agencies to streamline the process consistent with security imperatives, augmenting personnel devoted to these tasks, and making more efficient use of technology.

We must also ensure that we have procedures in place to promote prompt protection, including resettlement, for qualified applicants to our resettlement program – in Iraq or elsewhere – who are at imminent risk of severe harm. This is a substantial challenge, as the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program is not generally structured as a rescue program for people in urgent need to life-saving protection. In fact, most of the vulnerable persons eligible for the USRAP are outside their countries of origin – where they faced persecution – and are the beneficiaries of temporary refuge. 

Date: 07/27/2011 Description: Two boys enjoy their new lives in Arizona.  Photo Courtesy of UNHCR

Two boys enjoy their new lives in Arizona.
Photo Courtesy of UNHCR

That being said, there are individuals of concern who may be at imminent risk, and we continue to work on ways we can strengthen our capacity to assist them through expedited processing when possible. We appreciate that whatever abilities we develop in this area, our capacity will inevitably be limited – due in large measure to the political, logistical, and operational challenges of assisting persons at risk who are in other countries. But whatever the limitations, we will continue to sustain and strengthen our efforts to help those in great and urgent need.

Finally, no matter how diligent our efforts at fact-finding, our security screening procedures will inevitably preclude resettlement of some number of persons who have bona fide claims to refugee status. That makes it incumbent upon us to be clear to applicants – especially those being processed within Iraq – about the uncertainties of the process before they make application.

Notwithstanding these formidable challenges, we will persevere in our efforts to strengthen our refugee resettlement program, in Iraq and elsewhere, and to ensure it continues to be a viable and effective protection option for individuals for whom resettlement is the necessary durable solution.

In doing so, we reflect the ideals of humanitarianism, as well as the instincts, inclinations and perspectives of the people of the United States.

Many thanks, and kind regards,

Eric Schwartz
Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration