October 15, 2013 4:35 pm

Refugees caught in transit trap during ‘political maelstrom’

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A female traveller, pworld©Getty

Thousands of refugees from countries including Iraq, Somalia and Myanmar have had their resettlement to the US frozen as the messy fallout of the government shutdown extends outside of the nation’s borders.

The state department halted its refugee rehousing programme after Congress’s inability to strike a budget deal partially closed the government on October 1 and crippled the financial and medical support systems that help refugees once they arrive in the US.

“Refugees are caught up in the political maelstrom in Washington,” said David Miliband, chief executive of the International Rescue Committee and former British foreign secretary. “These are people who have fled war, political oppression, religious persecution. They have been living in limbo in refugee camps and urban settings, some for as long as decades.”

The organisation estimates that up to 6,000 individuals who have been approved to come to the US will be affected by the shutdown. About 70,000 displaced people from more than 60 countries are brought to the US each year.

Amissa Francoise fled bloodshed and famine in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1990. Her father was kidnapped and her elder brother was killed by a rival tribe, prompting the family to move to the slums of Burundi’s capital.

“After many years of suffering . . . a priest told us we should apply for refugee status to the US,” she said. While Ms Francoise arrived in her new home in Boise, Idaho in June, after years of waiting, her family did not follow as planned on October 9.

They were among the hundreds who sold their possessions and left home in anticipation of a flight to the US and have been caught in the transit trap. “I’m worrying very much about my family. I don’t know where they are now,” she said. About 80 per cent of resettlements are family reunions.

Even when the shutdown ends, the earliest the refugee travel moratorium could lift is October 28, aid agencies say.

The state department is communicating with overseas refugee centres to process the most vulnerable cases, but the lives of many still hang in the balance.

Suzanne LeLaurin, senior vice-president for individuals and families at the International Institute of St Louis, a local resettlement provider, said she fears that many medical and security clearances may expire, sending refugees who expected to be free of oppressive and often dangerous living conditions within days to the back of the line, adding months to their wait.

But even for those who managed to set foot on US soil just before the government shuttered operations it has not been easy. Without federal funds displaced persons cannot access federal employment agencies or public benefits such as Medicaid or food stamps.

“It is practically impossible for local resettlement agencies to obtain social security cards for refugees, which enables access to cash and medical assistance...in their first few weeks here,” said Kristen Aster, associate director of Refugee Council USA.

As Senate leaders close in on a deal the wait continues for individuals like 55 year old Ulda Rodrigues from Cuba.

“Freedom of speech and religious freedom were the reasons why we wanted to come to America,” said Ms Rodrigues, who has been persecuted for years for being a Jehovah’s Witness. “I’m so close, but I fear we’re going backwards. I can’t bear it any more.”

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