State Department Can Do Little to Correct Refugee Mistakes

Tracey O’shaughnessy, Republican-American (Waterbury, Connecticut), March 16, 2008

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“The most important thing is for (the State Department) to enforce the rules that they already have and they’re not doing that,” said Chris Coen, who runs his own refugee support group, Friends of Refugees. “I see these same problems all over the country. It’s a lot worse than you think.”

The State Department is looking into how the [International Institute of Connecticut] handled the resettlement of 64 refugees from the Karen ethnic minority, who arrived in Waterbury last summer. Many of the problems it is believed to be examining—poor housing, missed medical appointments and poor documentation—are similar to those it raised “serious concerns about” in 2006.

But the institute made many of those same mistakes, like placing refugees in dirty, unsafe apartments, again when it placed more than 30 refugees in Waterbury’s St. Regis apartments last fall. That leads some Waterbury volunteers and a few national critics to insist that the State Department is something of a toothless tiger, casually monitoring the 400-plus affiliates of the 10 agencies allowed to resettle refugees, but with little enforcement power.

Coen says that in 16 months from July 2002 through October 2003, the State Department completed only 12 monitoring reports of resettlement agencies.

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A challenge

Although the institute is under fire from the State Department and local volunteers, its mission is quite challenging. While the State Department monitors agencies, its goals are often unrealistic, says Chris George, of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services. “The U.S. government has standards, but they do not provide us with enough money to meet those standards.”

The government provides a one-time $850 per person stipend to resettlement agencies. Of that, half must be used for the refugees, and half for administrative costs. In 1975, that figure was $500. “Whoop-de-do,” said Lavinia Limón, president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. “God help us if our salaries had not kept pace with inflation like that. The capacity of agencies like (the institute) has been severely curtailed. I would really criticize that.”

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Within 90 days, a resettlement agency is required to place refugees into jobs that will support them. But these are people who have been living in refugee camps, often are undereducated or illiterate and do not speak English.

The U.S. policy on refugees relies heavily on individual initiative. The resettlement agencies are required to help refugees enroll their children in school, to get access to health care, apply for Social Security cards, learn to use the state’s social services, and secure required U.S. documents—all in that 90-day period. The resettlement agency also must offer clients English language training, employment assistance, and other specialized instruction.

That “specialized instruction” could include such mundane activities as how to obtain a money order, buying an envelope, putting a stamp on a bill, operating an elevator and riding a public bus.

Frustration

In Waterbury, refugees who lived in the jungle of Thailand for as long as 15 years had to learn how to use a flush toilet. Many did not understand that diapers were not to be flushed in toilets. Women had to be instructed in the use of feminine hygiene products. The idea of personal hygiene—washing before eating, not eating from the floor—was new to some refugees, as was the idea of keeping an apartment clean.

In the camps they were given rations of rice, charcoal, fish paste and vegetables, but the Karen refugees had to escape the camps and climb high into the nearby jungle to hunt turkey, toad, monkey and even baby tiger to have enough to eat.

In Waterbury, they had to learn the appropriate way to cook and refrigerate meat.

All of this has been done against a backdrop of learning English and assuming the responsibility of a 40-hour workweek.

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Limón, who has been involved with resettlement for 30 years, says refugees had been given longer to acculturate in the past. But, she says, “What we found was that the longer people were not working, the longer it took them to learn English, the less acclimated they became and the more family dysfunction took place. It didn’t work.”

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“Refugees need to get started in their life here. They need to get going.” She compared the U.S. policy to that of Sweden, which gives refugees five years of language and culture lessons before allowing them to work. “I’ve talked to refugees there and they are frustrated that they can’t get to work. You have refugees who’ve been sitting around with their life on hold. They don’t need another five years.”

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