Refuge refused

International | IMMIGRATION: Efforts to keep foreign terrorists out of the United States are also closing the door to persecuted refugees

Issue: "Gay marriage backlash," Dec. 6, 2003

TEN MEN APPEARED AT JOSEPH'S door in Peshawar, Pakistan. They gave him two weeks to turn over his niece, Pearl, or die. Pearl had fled Afghanistan and sought refuge in her uncle's home after she became a Christian three years earlier, in 1998. Her father disowned Pearl, her mother, and five other children. Now her father had sold her-for more than $1,000-to an older mullah in Afghanistan's then-ruling Taliban regime.

Joseph was on the run himself, having become a Christian about 25 years earlier. Even before the death threats, residents in his home village in Afghanistan burned down his house when they learned he had become an "infidel" and razed his 500-tree orchard. With these new threats, the family hurried to the local protection office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to apply for refugee status.

Two Muslim interviewers with the UN agency questioned Joseph for three hours, laughing at the idea of an Afghan being a Christian. They told him to come back in six weeks when the regular protection officer returned from travel. Two weeks later, one of the 10 men returned to Joseph's home, pointed a gun at him, demanded Pearl, and threatened to squeeze the trigger. "Go ahead," Joseph told him. The man walked away.

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Joseph and his family then escaped into hiding in Islamabad. But on April 29, 2001, agents went to his sister's house in Kabul, Afghanistan, to kidnap her. In the struggle, they shot her 31-year-old son. Eleven days later, 10 men stabbed Joseph's brother-in-law to death in Kabul, and killed another sister.

About two months later, the U.S. government granted Joseph's family and Pearl refugee status, opening the way for a new life in America. As a woman without family protection, Pearl was a top-priority refugee. The family would fly to freedom on Sept. 12, 2001.

Al-Qaeda sent those plans reeling. The terrorist attacks the day before canceled most international flights to the United States. The government allowed refugee flights again in November 2001, but officials told Joseph and Pearl that they would have to wait.

On April 7, 2002, a band of men abducted Pearl, her mother, and other siblings and took them back to Kabul. No one has heard from her since. Joseph and his family are still in hiding, more than two years after their first scheduled departure, hoping for a rescheduled flight to the United States.

The stalled process is a familiar scenario for thousands of refugees around the world, particularly since 9/11. New security screening has slowed refugee processing, and the United States has fallen short of its established quotas in the last two years. The president authorized 70,000 refugees in 2002 and the same in 2003. Last year only 27,100 arrived in the country, and this year is only slightly better, at 28,000. The number of applications approved during last year was about 18,600-the lowest since 1980.

The backlog of cases has refugee advocates worried. Bureaucratic backlogs can be the difference between life and death for people like Joseph and his Christian family members. Putting refugees on hold for extra security checks or interviews means many remain in life-threatening danger, they say, and especially hurts persecuted Christians such as Pearl. "I was very upset when I found out she disappeared, when she was so close to being given freedom," said Ann Buwalda, U.S. director of Jubilee Campaign, an advocacy group for persecuted Christians and children. Her organization pushed for a quick resolution to Pearl's case. "My fear is that she was married off and is either behind a burqa or three feet under."

WORLD examined legal documents provided by Jubilee Campaign that detailed the history of Pearl's case, although her real name and those of her family members are not used here. The government does not keep statistics on what causes refugees to flee, but religious persecution probably makes up only a fraction of total refugee cases. Most refugees flee war or political or ethnic persecution.

Advocates also point out that refugees were the most stringently vetted group of immigrants even before 9/11, making refugee status an unlikely choice for a terrorist looking for a door into America. Becoming a refugee, from application to final approval, takes about two to five years, said Dan Kosten, director of refugee and immigration programs at World Relief. He added that all 19 of the 9/11 terrorists entered the United States using temporary visas.

"If the thief comes in through the window, why are we barring the doors?" he said. "It's almost impossible for anyone to get through this program with bad intentions, but is it the best use of resources? Why all of a sudden beef up this program so heavily?"


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