New York, NY
Thousands of refugees who have been resettled in the United States as part of this country’s long-held refugee admissions program are facing indefinite separation from their closest family members – many of whom remain refugees – as a result of the alarming slowdown in refugee admissions to the United States since September 11. Refugee advocates across the country, including the Women’s Commission for Refugee Woman and Children, are greatly concerned about the harmful effect this slowdown is having on refugees overseas who continue to face persecution – as well as former refugees now living in the United States as ‘new Americans,’ their families and the communities in which they live.
Following Sept. 11, the U.S. government put a halt to refugee resettlement – the only immigration program it suspended. When President Bush lifted the moratorium on November 21, 2001, he authorized the admission of up to 70,000 refugees for FY2002-2003 – a 12.5 percent decrease from the previous year. As of August 31, 2002, however, with just a couple months to go in the fiscal year, only 23,497 had been admitted to the United States. As a result, tens of thousands of lives remain at great risk, particularly those of refugee women and children, who are especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
“While the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children recognizes the serious national security challenges presented by the events of Sept. 11, we do not believe that curtailing the rights of refugees and closing our doors to those seeking protection is an effective or appropriate response to such concerns,” says Wendy Young, Director of Government Relations and U.S. Programs for the Women’s Commission. “We must not turn our back on those who, like their predecessors more than two hundred years ago, came to this country in search of freedom and justice. Since Sept. 11, however, we’ve been doing just that.”
One component of the U.S. admission programs that has suffered greatly since Sept. 11 is the family reunification program. “The reunification of close family members who themselves have fled persecution and face the additional trauma of ongoing family separation has always been a priority of the U.S. admissions program,” says Abigail Price, Immigration Officer, International Rescue Committee. U.S. immigration law permits the expedient reunification – within two years – of the husband, wife and unmarried children with the refugee parent or spouse who has been admitted to the U.S. “Since Sept. 11, however, there has been no expedient process. It’s very clear that new – and necessary – security measures are slowing down the reunification process to tremendously. We urge the U.S. to provide the necessary resources to ensure that appropriate security measures are put in place and that refugees be given priority so that further risk to these individuals can be avoided and family reunification can occur in a reasonable timeframe.”
Mangala Sharma, a human rights activist from Bhutan, who now lives in Decatur, Georgia, where she is an advocate for refugee women and children, is one of many ‘new Americans’ waiting desperately for her family. “I haven’t seen my husband or two young daughters for more than two years,” says Sharma, who spent eight years in a refugee camp in Nepal after fleeing persecution in Bhutan. “It’s been devastating for all of us. Since Sept. 11, our lives have been on hold. My daughters are having a very hard time. It’s been very difficult to focus on my life here when I know my husband and children are suffering greatly.” Sharma was given refugee status in the United States through political asylum in early 2001. Since settling in the United States, Sharma has worked to provide leadership training for refugee and immigrant women around the country, but is finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate on work as concern for her family grows.
Sharma, a member of the ethnic Nepalese minority from southern Bhutan, the Lothampas, is part of a family who was persecuted for fighting for equal rights for her people in Bhutan. She was forced to flee in 1992 to escape harassment after her uncle was imprisoned and her brother blacklisted by the government. She ended up in a refugee camp in eastern Nepal, one of more than 90,000 ethnic Nepalese who fled Bhutan in the early 1990s after the government introduced a policy of forced assimilation to the majority ethnic group’s tradition and culture.
In the refugee camp where she lived, Sharma founded an organization called Bhutanese Refugees Aiding Victims of Violence (BRAVVE) in response to rape and other gender violence she witnessed. Run entirely by refugees, the organization provides skills training to refugee women and adolescents in tailoring, weaving, shoe-making and typing, among other activities. The money they earn is used to buy food to supplement the limited provisions they receive.
Because of her ongoing activism, life in the refugee camp became increasingly difficult for Sharma and her family so she applied for political asylum in the United States, which was granted in March 2001. Since then, she has been trying to reunite with her family – her husband, a doctor, and two daughters, ages 11 and 12, all of whom are still in Nepal. Their case has been stalled since November 2001, caught in bureaucratic limbo after September 11. Her husband and daughters visited the embassy daily for a month earlier this year and were told that they would be interviewed within the next four months. The father prepared the family for departure and withdrew the girls from school. Today, with resources dwindling, they still await their interview. Husband and wife remain separated and the young girls are entering adolescence without the guidance of their mother.
Sharma, who has been honored by several organizations for her work, including the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children and Amnesty International, is desperate to see her daughters and husband and is working hard to contain her despair. “I certainly understand the need for increased security measures since Sept. 11, but there are thousands of refugees like myself, my young daughters and my husband who look to the United States as a safe haven and rely on the lifesaving protection it provides,” she says. “But now I feel as if we’ve been forgotten and there’s no indication that this situation is going to change any time soon.”
The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children is urging the Bush administration to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to refugees like Sharma and her family by ensuring that the number of refugees admitted into the U.S. reaches approved levels for the next fiscal year.
Experts available for interviews:
Mangala Sharma, former refugee, Refugee Women’s Network; Wendy Young, Director of Government Relations and U.S. Programs, Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children; Abigail Price, Immigration Officer, International Rescue Committee.