Long Waits for Refugees
They are individuals who, at great personal risk, speak out against tyranny, oppression, and corruption. Because of the threat they pose to the regimes criticized, they are often in danger even after crossing a neighboring international border. Despite the intentions of the United States when it formally established a refugee resettlement program following World War II, the US government still finds itself nearly incapable of adequately assisting at-risk refugees, numbered at fewer than 1,000 last year.
Bureaucracy has ensnared the United States Refugee Program. It takes a minimum of several months, and often a year or more, before a refugee who is accepted into the program ultimately arrives here.
This is too long for people who have already suffered trauma or remain endangered. There needs to be a concerted effort to streamline the processing effort for all accepted refugees. For extremely at-risk refugees, a wait can prove fatal.
In order to save the lives of these exceptional individuals, the United States Refugee Program needs to enact emergency processing procedures for up to several hundred emergency cases a year.
Consider the recent case of Kimmie Weeks. Only 17, Weeks likes to describe himself as a child rights activist. A year ago in his home country of Liberia, Weeks decided to investigate rumors that the Liberian government was training child soldiers. (Charles Taylor, the president of Liberia, has been accused by the State Department of fomenting civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone by providing guns and soldiers to the Revolutionary United Front, a group whose tactics included the severing of civilians' limbs.) Weeks encountered troops drilling large numbers of children who carried sticks in place of guns.
He wrote a report about what he had seen and asked the government to investigate. The government's response was to condemn Weeks as a dangerous subversive in a press conference and to send riot police to his school and soldiers to his home in an attempt to arrest him.
After living for a month underground in Liberia, Weeks fled to the neighboring Ivory Coast. His case by then had received worldwide press attention. When he sought refugee status at the US Embassy saying he feared for his life even in the Ivory Coast, he was told by an embassy official that he would be on his way to the United States within days.
A US diplomat sympathetic to Weeks's plight offered him a place to stay. As the weeks turned into months, U S senators weighed in trying to expedite his processing.
Unlike a woman who has resisted the Draconian edicts of the Taliban in Afghanistan and now lives in fear in a Pakistani refugee camp or an Iraqi dissident living underground in Jordan, the eyes of the world and the influence of US senators did help to raise the profile of Weeks's case. Still, he was forced to hide, living in fear, for more than seven months in the Ivory Coast before obtaining the approvals that allowed him to board a flight to the United States.
There is no reason for this glacial pace of processing. America should emulate Canada's recent decision and establish a fast-track program for exceptionally at-risk refugees.
Such a permanent emergency program does not require legislation or additional funds. But it does need the initiative of both the administration and Congress to encourage the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service to institutionalize the program.
The Kosovo emergency refugee program offers a valuable precedent for integrating ''fast track'' processing into the United States. That program allowed Kosovar refugees to enter the United States within days and weeks of applying, proving the legal and logistical viability of expedited processing.
While the United States Refugee Resettlement Program does not attempt to provide a durable solution for all of the world's refugees needing resettlement, it does set a standard in terms of absolute numbers resettled. In 1998 the United States resettled 76,554 refugees, more than 50 percent of the worldwide total. But our failure to address the plight of refugees facing extreme danger in their countries of first asylum also sets a standard that fails to conform with both our history and our ideals.
Expedited processing to save the lives of exceptional individuals who at great risk defend the principles of freedom should be an American hallmark. How better to celebrate the year 2000 than to say to those who live in fear of persecution because they defended freedom, ''America welcomes you.''