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Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Who are Refugees?  Who are Asylees?

Refugees are people seeking protection in a foreign country in order to escape extreme conditions, ranging from persecution to famine, in their homeland.  The 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as an individual who  "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of her/his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/her-self of the protection of that country...".  

The 1967 Protocols to the Convention expanded the concept of a refugee to include persons fleeing war or other violence in their home country.  As with the Fanhbulleh family profiled in Jason DeRose's recent piece, refugees normally apply for protection while outside the United States, from refugee camps or at designated processing sites outside their home countries. 

Asylees differ from refugees because they do not enter the United States as refugees but apply for protection upon their arrival in the foreign country.  They may enter as students, tourists, businessmen or without papers.  Once they are in the United States, or at a land border or port of entry, they apply for asylum, a status which means they meet the definition of a refugee and that will allow them to remain in the United States. 

Catrin Einhorn explores the process of asylum through the experiences of some of Chicago's more recent asylum seekers, Tibetans.  To qualify for refugee resettlement in the U.S., a person must come from a country designated by the Department of State.  In addition to proving that s/he has a well-founded fear of persecution, a refugee must fit into one of a set of "priority" categories, which include: risk to the refugee's life, membership in certain groups of special concern to the U.S., and existence of family members in the U.S. 

People claiming refugee status have to undergo a lengthy screening process before being resettled in the United States.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) determines if s/he qualifies as a refugee under international law.  Then, the U.S. embassy in the host country conducts an extensive background check, after which an officer from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) conducts a face-to-face interview and reviews the file.  The refugee is then photographed and fingerprinted by the State Department.  Certain refugees must receive clearance from the FBI.  If no problems arise in all of this screening, the refugee proceeds to the U.S., where an inspector from the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection conducts one more interview and compares the refugee with host country U.S. embassy records. 

Each year the President and the Congress decide on the total number of refugees it will accept.  In 2007 this figure is 70,000.  However this figure is a target goal - fewer refugees may be admitted by the end of the year.  In 2004 for example, less than 53,000 refugees out of the 70,000 admission ceiling were admitted.

Why do refugees come to Illinois?

Refugees are often sent to cities and towns in Illinois if they have friends or family already living there or if there is already a large community from their home country already established in the area.  But refugees are also resettled in Illinois if local organizations, individuals or community groups can offer affordable housing, employment and the other services that a refugee will need in order to become independent and self-sufficient as quickly as possible. 

Many refugees who come to Chicago have never even heard of the city before and they must adapt to a different climate, new food, new language and a new culture. 

In Illinois, local organizations such as Heartland Alliance, World Relief, Catholic Charities, Hebrew Aid Society, Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries and others work with national organizations and local churches, synagogues, mosques, community groups and individuals to help provide the services that refugees will need upon arrival in Illinois.

The U.S. State Department works with national voluntary agencies to help resettle refugees in the United States and the federal government provides funding for refugee resettlement through national voluntary organizations who work with their local counterparts.  After refugees have been in the U.S. for one year, they are eligible to become permanent residents.  There is no limit to the number of refugees who may become permanent residents each year.  The majority of refugees who come to the United States do not return to their home countries. Many become U.S. citizens.

Why does the United States take refugees?

According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, it is “the historic policy of the United States to admit to this country refugees of special humanitarian concern, reflecting our core values and our tradition of being a safe haven for the oppressed.”In practice, the United States enacted its first refugee legislation in 1948 – the Displaced Persons Act of 1948.  The Act allowed for larger numbers of Europeans displaced by World War II to enter the United States. 

Later laws provided for admission of persons fleeing Communist regimes in the 1950s and for Cubans in the 1960s.  In the wake of the Vietnam War, Congress passed The Refugee Act of 1980, which standardized resettlement services for all refugees admitted to the U.S. This Act incorporates the definition of "refugee" used in the U.N. Protocol, and makes provision for a regular flow as well as emergency admission of refugees, and authorizes federal assistance for the resettlement of refugees. 
Just recently the Bush administration has agreed to increase the number of Iraqis it will attempt to resettle to the United States.

Resettlement benefits for refugees arriving in the U.S. are provided through a combination of public and private funding. Public funding is largely coming from the Federal Government; however, some States provide additional funds. The private non-profit NGOs that place refugees in communities raise considerable funding privately, and recruit volunteers, contributing generously to the cost of resettlement.From the perspective of refugees and Illinoisans who work with them, the reasons we should take refugees are obvious. 

Jacques Bahti, who recently graduated from the Catholic Theological Seminary, came to Illinois from the Democratic Republic of Congo not as a refugee but as a student.  Nonetheless he remains connected to people who are refugees in Africa and will soon move to Washington D.C. to advocate on behalf of refugees from Congo and beyond. 

He says our refugee policy reflects “the need for every individual to be at peace, to be able to sleep at night and not worry about war and violence….  If you want that for yourself here in Illinois, for sure you would want it for anyone else.  And the presence of a refugee is a sign that there is no peace, and a call for you and me to work for peace.  “…(B)eing displaced from what makes meaning for you – the smells, the memories of your land, all that formed and informed you, and to just leave it behind you is for some people not that easy.  But you have to otherwise there is no peace.  That is…what people are looking for when they come here.”

And for Sean Patrick, who heads up RATIO, a group dedicated to raising money and awareness of refugee issues, no matter “how separated people seem to feel from things happening in Africa, (we are) all intimately related in reality.  We create the market forces that run the global machine.  We want cheaper cell phones, bigger diamonds and we don't think about where those come from.  Now more than any other time in history we are linked to people all over the world and we should open our hearts and homes and lives to these people."

Information for this article comes from the National Immigration Forum, the International Rescue Committee, UNHCR, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Illinois Bureau of Refugee & Immigrant Services. 

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