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Planned Budget Cuts Will Harm Refugees

February 25, 2011

Congressional Budget Cuts Threaten Refugee
Resettlement and Torture Treatment Programs

The assistance benefits provided by the United States to arriving refugees are already extremely limited, but our current Congress seems determined to slash them even further. The Lutheran Immigration & Refuge Service – one of our leading resettlement organizations – warns that the budget bill passed by the House on February 18, 2011, “will harm our country’s ability to protect and welcome refugees in need.” You can express your concern about this online through the LIRS Action Center. Another action line is provided by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. If not sure who your Senators are, you can check at the Senate’s website. or call (202) 224-3121.
            The Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis, one of our Outreach Partners, points out that these cuts will also seriously affect the funds available for torture treatment programs like theirs, and they also offer an online site for expressing your opinion to Congress. 

According to LIRS, “The bill cuts $830 million for international refugee protection and humanitarian aid to the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, a 45% cut from last year. Additionally, $76 million (10.4% from last year) is cut from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which funds services to refugees in the United States, an investment in their long-term integration. These programs save lives and provide refugees, unaccompanied children, and survivors of torture and trafficking with services to help them heal, rebuild and eventually thrive in American communities.
            “Those abroad who are fleeing conflict would be denied access to basic life-saving services like shelter, food, water and education. Resettled refugees will be at greater risk for homelessness and hunger when they should instead be given tools to become vibrant and productive members of society.”

Why is this a big deal?

One of the things I’ve had to get my head around in working on this project is the actual, legal meaning of the terms used for the immigration status of people coming to the United States. We tend to use the word “refugee” loosely, to describe pretty much anyone who comes to the U.S. because conditions in their home country are bad and they’re looking for a better life. That trivializes the reality.
            To be classified as a refugee, under the U.N. convention, a person must have left their home country and be unable to return safely because of a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” Current guidelines also recognize as refugees people who have fled their countries because of ongoing warfare. Most people seeking this status are living in refugee camps, under conditions of severe hardship, and sometimes for many years. In interviewing for our film Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture, we’ve been told about people stuck in camps for as long as twenty years.
            To receive refugee status, a person must also be outside the United States – they cannot simply arrive at the border and ask to be admitted as a refugee. Someone doing that would, instead, be classified as an asylum seeker, and would not be entitled to any benefits until and unless asylum is granted.
            Moreover, people cannot simply declare themselves to be refugees. Such claims are investigated by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), by the international police organization Interpol and – if the person wants to come to the United States – by our own government. Where a particular refugee ends up is also not just a matter of their preference. The UNHCR works with the receiving countries and allocates people according to each country’s quotas.
            NOTE: On our project website, we’ve tried to offer some plain English definitions of this and other related terms, such as asylum, temporary protected status, etc. (and, by the way, we would definitely welcome corrections to any inaccuracies.) More detailed definitions, along with historical background, are available from Wikipedia and many other sources. (UNHCR photo above.)

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