September 23, 1999
Panelists: Mark Hetfield, Washington Representative of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society; Dot Ivey, Washington Representative of the Immigration and Refugee Program of Church World Service; Stephanie Peters, Minority Council of the House Judiciary Committee; and Grover Joseph Rees, Majority Counsel of the House International Relations Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights.
Moderator: Kathleen Newland, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment.
On September 23, the International Migration Policy Program of the Carnegie Endowment hosted members of the recent NGO/Congressional staff delegation that visited Egypt, the Balkans and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The delegation undertook their trip to examine current mechanisms of refugee protection, burden sharing and various resettlement options. Panelists shared with the audience their observations from the site visits as well as suggestions for more durable solutions.
This NGO/Congressional staff delegation was the third such trip to areas of the world that offer insight on refugee situations. Three years ago, a similar group went to East Africa and last year a group went to West Africa. The delegation was bipartisan and was composed of staffers from both the House and the Senate as well as NGO representatives, staff from UNHCR, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and the Department of State. The purpose of this delegation was to be able to "see first hand what the refugee experience was like on the ground" and to use this knowledge to advocate on these issues once back in Washington. Each of the planned stops on the tour was selected because of the unique insight it afforded. In Cairo the delegation had the opportunity to learn about protection issues specific to a refugee community in an urban setting as well as to observe the model UNHCR referral process to the US resettlement program at work there. In the Balkans, members of the delegation visited Macedonia and Kosovo to better understand "how the international community had used resettlement, both temporary and permanent, to respond to that crisis." The delegation also visited the CIS, specifically St.Petersburg and Baku, Azerbaijan, "where for the first time since the collapse of Soviet Union resettlement opportunities are now being explored by UNHCR and resettlement countries." The delegation ended in Rome where they visited the INS district office, and an Italian detention center for asylum seekers.
The NGO members of the delegation are preparing a report of their findings and anyone interested in obtaining a copy should contact Tsehai Dirar from Church World Service at (202) 544-2350
Refugees in Cairo are in a precarious position, Stephanie Peters pointed out, because of Egypt's reluctance to make integration a viable option. The large refugee community, mainly composed of Sudanese and Somalis, is stranded in an urban setting without adequate services and support. Peters said that the delegation noted that NGOs were frustrated, and their capabilities curbed because their operations had to be restricted to the property owned by churches. Furthermore, refugees are prevented from helping themselves due to Egyptian restrictions on refugee employment. All of these factors combine to make the refugee population in Cairo candidates for resettlement to countries like the United States.
Peters expressed concern over some parts of the resettlement process in Cairo, including the processing of refugees. The decision of the State Department to use the International Organization for Migration (IOM) over a Joint Voluntary Agency (JVA) to handle case preparation, resulted in a lack of experienced caseworkers in Peters' opinion. Peters recounted conversations she had with embassy officials in Cairo that led her to believe that the case preparation that was being done was incomplete and that some of it had to be repeated, wasting valuable resources.
Overall, Peters held the Cairo program up as a model of cooperation between all of the actors and agencies involved in refugee resettlement. Mark Hetfield agreed that UNHCR has developed into an integral part of the US refugee resettlement process by becoming an effective means of referring good candidates. "A lot of the refugee resettlement agencies were very skeptical at the beginning because UNHCR had a longstanding institutional bias against resettlement as one of the durable solutions available to refugees." Nonetheless, the program in Cairo has become, in Hetfield's opinion, a shining example of how well the referral process can work for urgent cases (P1s). "In FY1997 there were 300 Sudanese refugees referred to the US program in Cairo, in FY98 it was up to 1,000, and in FY99 it was 2,000." Hetfield did criticize UNHCR's identification process for refugees due to the fact that there are 3 million Sudanese in Egypt and only 2,000 of these people are recognized as refugees.
The trip to the Balkans was spilt between Macedonia, where the delegation looked at the residual refugee population, and Kosovo, where repatriation is still taking place. Joseph Rees spoke about the unique repatriation effort and the surprising willingness of the refugees to return to Kosovo. "This is the first instance that I have ever seen of 'voluntary' voluntary repatriation. Too often we stretch the limits of voluntary and tell people that they have no other choice and then define them as voluntary if they aren't kicking and screaming. In this case, people are kicking and screaming to go back." The people remaining in the refugee camps in Macedonia were those hesitant to return until they got word of the situation they would be returning to as well as people who were still hoping for resettlement in a third country. Rees drew a distinction between refugees who did not want to return to Kosovo because of economic considerations and those who resisted repatriation because of the atrocities that they had experienced, and he noted that both categories of people were present in the camps.
Another group of refugees who remained in the camps and were of special concern for resettlement were Roma from Kosovo. Even though most of the Roma fled Kosovo with their ethnic Albanian neighbors, rumors developed of Roma cooperation with the Serbs. When some Roma attempted to repatriate they became targets of violence and have since become a population in limbo, unable to safely return to their homes. Rees pointed out that "the good news is that there are only 50,000 Roma from Kosovo, and so they would make a relatively easy community to resettle should that become necessary."
Once in Kosovo, the delegation examined the extensive aid projects at work. Addressing criticism that humanitarian agencies responded better in Kosovo than in other areas of the world, Rees stated that "Kosovo should set the standard for aid and we should not spend our time criticizing agencies for doing too much." The major problem in Kosovo that Rees and the other members of the delegation witnessed revolved around the prioritization of aid. In a country where seventy percent of the useable housing was destroyed Rees noted that the dire need for winterized housing has not been made the priority it deserves as numerous agencies are working to achieve various goals. "We need to look at how much they [Kosovars] need bricks and mortar and public security against the wide variety of things you get when you do a "free market" NGO influx."
Two other areas of concern that the delegation highlighted were the treatment of ethnic minorities remaining in Kosovo, including Roma and Serbs, as well as availability of non-emergency health care.
Commonwealth of Independent States
"Those of us to went to Azerbaijan were totally shocked by what we saw. We went to West Africa last year and saw some deplorable conditions and I have to say that the conditions that we saw in Azerbaijan were every bit as bad- but the difference was that in Azerbaijan refugees have been living in these camps for years." Mark Hetfield highlighted the suffering in Baku when he pointed out that food aid is lacking, and so refugees are forced to live on fractions of the daily rations normally distributed, and the conditions of the land prevent refugees from supplying their own food as a supplement. Hetfield attributed the shortage of resources to the lack of attention the area receives as well as "donor fatigue."
The major concern of the delegation after visiting Baku was the section of U.S. law, section 907, which prevents assistance directed toward the Azerbaijani government. Humanitarian agencies are troubled by the law since even though it makes an exception for humanitarian assistance to refugees and internally displaces persons, it prevents all forms of assistance that concern development and has been very strictly interpreted by USAID. "We went to a meeting of NGO representatives and USAID where they expressed the view that section 907 is making their jobs extremely difficult," explained Hetfield. Suggestions were made that the US government needs to reform implementation of the law so that refugee populations are not made to suffer.
"While the Azerbaijan office of UNHCR is concentrating on assistance issues, the St.Petersburg office is focusing on protection issues. Refugees living throughout the Russian Federation are living under precarious circumstances." Hetfield noted that while Russia is a signatory to the UN refugee convention, and has passed laws on asylum, there remains no way to enforce these obligations. As a result, refugee status is not often granted and even those recognized as refugees often face harassment and arbitrary detention. Hetfield felt that the "UNHCR is beginning to admit that the countries in the CIS are not fulfilling their obligations to protect asylum seekers, and as a result they are beginning to consider resettling some of these refugees."
The delegation identified INS' policy on circuit rides as a major barrier to US participation in the resettlement of refugees from the CIS. In the discussion it became clear that there existed a catch-22 between INS and UNHCR. The CIS does not have regularly scheduled circuit rides, where INS officers travel to multiple sites to interview refugee candidates for US resettlement. As the process works now, applicants who are referred by UNHCR must travel to Moscow at their own expense to be interviewed. This system seems to be prohibitive for many people. Before scheduling a circuit ride, which would make the process accessible to more refugees, INS waits until UNHCR has collected a sufficient number of cases to warrant consideration. UNHCR, on the other hand, was described as reluctant to encourage refugees by referring them to INS, unless they were sure that the cases would be heard. The delegation felt that better coordination would create a more efficient system with faster case adjudication.
"This was the real shock of the trip" said Mark Hetfield in reference to the delegation's tour of an Italian detention center. "This detention center should be used by INS as a model for our own detention centers in the US." Hetfield was impressed that there were no armed guards regularly stationed inside the building, detainees were allowed freedom of movement throughout the compound, recreational facilities were provided, and there was a 30 day limit on the amount of time a person can be detained.
Questions and Answers
Kathleen Newland, senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment, started off the question and answer period asking about the delegation's time in Cairo. Newland was interested in secondary migration, and wanted to know if the delegation had heard concerns expressed that the possibility of resettlement through Cairo made the city a magnet for refugees.
Stephanie Peters replied that in her opinion the situation for refugees in Cairo was too harsh to appear seductive to other refugees. Later Kelly McGraph, from the Institute for the Study of International Migration, responded that during her time in Cairo as director of St. Andrews Church, it was evident that secondary migration was a concern of aid workers as refugees did travel to Cairo in search of better prospects.
Kathleen Thompson, from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, replied to a number of the points made in the presentation. Thompson noted that the INS has already begun looking at the situation of Roma from Kosovo. She explained that a dozen Roma families were among the refugees evacuated from Macedonia to the US. Joseph Rees stressed that while he was glad to hear of Roma resettlement, it would be important to continue to make resettlement available to Roma who could no longer return safely to their homes. Terry Ruche, from the State Department's Bureau of Population Refugees and Migration, replied that the evacuation program from Macedonia had been terminated but that a resettlement program from Macedonia, for Kosovar refugees, would be an option in the future.
John Fredriksson, of the US Committee for Refugees, commented that the discussion of circuit rides in the CIS made it sound like US policy in the region needed to be revamped. Fredriksson said that a comprehensive regional approach was necessary and that the current situation in the CIS was reminiscent of how resettlement was handled in Africa ten years ago. "We have no philosophical objections to doing circuit rides when UNHCR has cases to refer to us, but the coordination efforts still haven't gelled," replied Kathleen Thompson.