Refugees Stuck in Red Tape

Human Rights

Genevieve Lincoln lost her two young children 13 years ago during the chaos of war in her native West African country of Liberia. After four years of searching from her new home in the United States, she found them, alive in a refugee camp in Sierra Leone.

Now they seem lost again -- eligible for U.S. immigration yet trapped in a post-9/11 bureaucracy of tighter security rules that many say disproportionately affect African refugees.

In 1990, as civil war raged in Liberia, Lincoln was captured by rebel forces. She escaped and returned to her village to find her son, 10, and daughter, 11, gone. So she fled, walking barefoot for miles past burnt-out villages and bodies lying in the streets. Lincoln eventually immigrated to Oakland, Calif., where she now works as a computer systems analyst. After four years of frantic searching through countless long-distance phone calls and contacts with West African travelers, Lincoln discovered her children were living in a crowded, unsanitary refugee camp wracked by malaria and typhoid fever.

"You have deadly diseases that could just kill people in the twinkle of an eye," Lincoln says. "Every time the telephone rings, it is fear."

Her story isn't unusual. Refugee admissions for all nationalities reached an all-time low last year. For a program that had annually admitted more than 130,000 refugees a decade before, the Bush administration approved a 70,000-admissions ceiling for fiscal year 2002. Of that number, just 26,317 refugees actually made it through State Department processing and into the United States. Tens of thousands remain stranded in camps and separated from relatives legally living here.

Among African refugees, only 10.8 percent of the approved regional ceiling arrived here in fiscal year 2002, the lowest percentage for any continent, according to the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

U.S. Africans are upset by the disparity.

"I can't understand why only in Africa is there a problem bringing refugees here," Liberian-born U.S. citizen Maphata Roberts told West Africans gathered at a refugee event in Berkeley, Calif., in April. Roberts, a 17-year U.S. resident and a bank branch manager, has been waiting 10 years for her family to arrive from a Ghanaian refugee camp. "We pay our taxes, and we do everything we can like all other citizens of this world. Africa suffers because -- maybe because we're black?"

The question has been raised before. In the late 1990s, the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus called the country's refugee program discriminatory; in 1997 only 6,000 African refugees were admitted into the United States, in contrast to 48,000 European refugees. The caucus successfully lobbied the Clinton administration to raise the ceiling on Africans to 12,000 in 1999 and 18,000 in 2000, and actual admissions roughly equaled those numbers. But admissions plummeted after 9/11.

In April, U.S. House of Representatives members formed the Bipartisan Congressional Refugee Caucus. Co-sponsor John Conyers (D-Mich.), also dean of the Black Congressional Caucus, said the new caucus would assert U.S. "commitment to the protection, humanitarian needs and compassionate treatment of refugees." So far, the caucus has not addressed Africans particularly.

As of April 1, the halfway point of the current fiscal year, only 8,874 refugees from all countries had arrived here.

Under the U.S. family-reunification program, the spouses, parents and children of refugees legally living in the United States are eligible for U.S. immigration -- once they have completed a 13-step security-screening process involving Homeland Security, U.S. embassies, the FBI, the CIA and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. But since 9/11, security checks have slowed to a snail's pace for African refugees.

According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a refugee resettlement agency, on average, Sierra Leonean refugees have been waiting five years to be reunited with their families. For Liberians, the average wait is more than seven years.

What is the holdup? After 9/11, the U.S. government closed refugee-processing centers and recalled INS circuit riders, who conduct interviews in camps. Centers reopened in Europe and Latin America first. In Africa, only two processing centers are now open. In 1999, by contrast, 24 processing centers were open in 14 African countries.

Sierra Leone-born Olive Briggs, a Pinole, Calif., resident, has been waiting since 1999 for her 92-year-old mother to arrive from a camp in Gambia. Her mother was deemed travel-ready by the U.S. government as of August 2001. No one has explained the delay.

"Don't treat us like animals," Briggs said at an Immigrant Legal Resources Center (ILRC) conference in San Francisco in May. "Let us know what the situation is."

According to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, 20,000 Africans were approved and travel-ready in September 2001. Many now have to be reprocessed because their health screenings have expired.

Adding to the backlog are final required checks of the relationship between the relative sponsor and the refugee. Even in straightforward cases, "Nobody seems to take responsibility for actually conducting security clearances," says Don Climent, regional director of the IRC's San Francisco office. "People are just waiting."

As she waits for her children, Genevieve Lincoln works long shifts to support her family abroad, at times toiling 24 consecutive hours. She says she battles depression. "I've clung on desperately to my sanity," she says, "because I know that without me, my family wouldn't be able to make it."

Karen Pojmann ( is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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