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.
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?"
Barring the doors is just one part of battening down the whole house, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Dan Kane. "Everyone-everyone-is undergoing intense scrutiny," he said. "It's hard to get into the mind of a terrorist, but for them the end justifies the means. Ruling out the refugee system and saying it wouldn't be used by the terrorist is not an appropriate assessment or evaluation."
For temporary U.S. visitors, new procedures are leading to tighter security, and more information requirements mean immigration officials have a better idea of who's coming and going in the country. Special registration begun last year for men 16 and older from 18 mostly Middle Eastern countries led to thousands of illegal Pakistani immigrants voluntarily leaving the country. Using a new foreign-student database, immigration enforcement officials have been able to identify about 4,000 who have breached their visa rules.
Foreigners applying to be refugees, however, have always undergone close scrutiny. The process usually begins with the UNHCR. The UN agency interviews most refugee applicants before they are referred to the State Department. A contracted organization compiles the refugee's case, which embassy officials check against a worldwide database containing information (such as past visa denials) that could disqualify applicants.
Then comes an interview with a U.S. immigration official, and refugees have to wait while teams fly to different locations. Only after clearing these stages does final processing begin, with more security checks if a refugee comes from a particular list of (until recently) mostly Middle Eastern countries. Those steps are necessary. The singular opportunity to come to America often leads to identity fraud, with interlopers posing as the refugees who originally applied.
Since 9/11, the United States has added more checks. Refugees are fingerprinted and photographed, and more countries are on the security list. Only 35 refugees may arrive at a U.S. port at a time, and once on American soil, they have a second interview. Along with terrorist threats that prevented immigration officers from traveling to regions such as East Africa, these new measures have slowed refugee processing.
Two years later, however, refugee advocates wonder how long it will take to smooth out the snarls. Newly reorganized immigration services at both the State and Homeland Security departments have made some inroads. Last year, immigration services trained 60 new officers to do overseas interviews, while State funded the International Organization for Migration to manage refugees' delayed travel arrangements.
"One major reason a lot of refugees aren't coming is because they aren't being interviewed," said Gary Fairchild, a World Relief refugee-processing manager. "DHS just simply won't go to certain locations to interview because of security concerns." He said Homeland Security would not send officers to Costa Rica in October to interview Colombian refugees because of a security threat. "And when you say you can't go to Costa Rica for security reasons, that's double talk to me."
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) is also pressing for more haste with an amendment he introduced into the Senate's foreign operations appropriations bill. The measure would require the State Department to allow other private organizations besides the UNHCR to refer refugees to the United States, and to identify more priority groups for resettlement. Ninety days after the bill passes, the secretary of state will have to outline to Congress how his department will meet the requirements. And if State hasn't made next year's ceiling of 70,000 refugee admissions, the secretary will have to explain why.
The coming year is crucial for large agencies such as World Relief, which re-settled 16 percent of last year's refugees. The group has already shut down several of its branch resettlement offices, and will have to close more if the flow of refugees still trickles in. The United States traditionally settles 50 percent of the refugees referred by the UNHCR, so the slowdown narrows opportunity for an estimated 10 million refugees worldwide. "If we're not taking them in, it hampers UNHCR's ability to supply safe haven for refugees," Mr. Kosten said.
When Pearl became a Christian in 1998, she smuggled a Dari-language Bible to her home in Kabul and shared her faith with 18 friends. She told missionary friends she would rather die than marry a mullah. Now her advocates fear she may have been granted that wish. Ms. Buwalda said Jubilee has been dealing with six refugee cases since 9/11, and none of them has been resolved.
"I do believe that the welcome mat for refugees has been pulled," she said. "It's extremely harmful for many of the most vulnerable around the world when we don't take their cases and don't transfer them to safety. We have the tragedy of Pearl multiplied several times over and it's preventable -without compromising security."