About 9,500 Burmese refugees have had their resettlement to the U.S. postponed indefinitely. They were scheduled to be resettled this year, but now have to wait for a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) waiver.
The problem is that the refugees, members of a largely Christian ethnic minority in Myanmar (formerly Burma), are suspected of providing "material support" to a rebel army, the Karen National Union (KNU). For more than 40 years, this army has been fighting Myanmar's Buddhist-friendly military regime, which, according to Operation World, is seeking to marginalize or even eliminate Christianity. Many Burmese refugees have family members in the KNU or have lived in areas under its control.
According to Jenny Hwang, World Relief's advocacy and policy coordinator for refugees and immigration, the laws fail to distinguish between freedom fighters and terrorist groups. "The interpretation is so general and so broad," Hwang said, "that it is ridiculous."
The U.S. Patriot Act and the 2005 real ID Act (see "Death Sentence?" April 2005, p. 26) expanded the definitions of terrorist activity. Refugees who have offered assistancealbeit indirect or involuntaryto a group that engages in violence can no longer enter the country.
As a result, DHS has barred nearly 12,000 refugees from Myanmar, Colombia, Vietnam, Somalia, and Cuba due to material support violations, according to World Relief reports. Colombian refugees were among the first to run afoul of the provision in 2005, because groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had forced many to pay taxes or provide lodging or provision.
"Ironically, for many of these refugees, the very circumstances that form the basis of their refugee/asylum claim have been interpreted in a way that has made them ineligible," the 19-member Refugee Council USA said in a statement.
The U.S. accepts more refugees each year than any other nation. According to Bill Strausberger, a spokesman for DHS's Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the bureau is working with the Departments of State and Justice to create a standard for evaluating exceptions to the material support provision. Strausberger said the U.S. tradition of welcoming refugees has not changed.
Until USCIS issues its exception guidelines, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees must redirect material support cases to other countries, most of which accept only a small number of refugees each year, or suspend their resettlement.
A handful of congressional leadersincluding Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and members of the bipartisan House refugee caucushave sent letters to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff. They are pressing him to quickly establish rules for the material support waiver.
"According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the [material support] bar, as currently interpreted, could affect up to tens of thousands of the refugees identified by the Department of State for resettlement," Lieberman and Kennedy wrote. "This was not the intent of Congress."
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News coverage has included articles in The New York Times,
Christian Freedom International is particularly focused on the plight of the Burmese refugees
News and opinion coverage of the issue includes:
Provision of antiterror law delays entry of refugees | About 9,500 Burmese refugees scheduled to be resettled in the United States from Thailand this year are in limbo because their indirect support for armed rebels opposed to their repressive government has put them in technical violation of American antiterrorism law, government officials say (The New York Times, Mar. 8)
Local experts: Patriot Act could keep refugees from families | Hundreds of local Burmese and Karen refugees could be kept from reuniting with their families because of unclear language in the Patriot Act and the REAL ID Act of 2005, local experts in refugee resettlement said (Observer-Dispatch, Utica, N.Y., Mar. 4)
Terrorists or victims? | American law prevents refugees from entering the United States if they provided "material support" to terrorists, even if the support was given under duress (Editorial, The New York Times, Apr. 3)
Let us not deny refuge to victims of terrorism | In an absurd twist, America's anti-terrorism laws are now being used to deny protection to refugees fleeing some of the most brutal regimes and violent conflicts on earth (Gideon Aronoff, Forward, Mar. 31)
U.S. unintentionally dims lamp for persecuted refugees | What do Nelson Mandela, Moses, and George Washington all have in common? Under obscure provisions in the recently renewed Patriot Act and the Real ID Act, none of them could seek shelter or citizenship in the United States. (Bronwyn Lance Chester, The Virginian-Pilot, Mar. 30)
Terrorist or terrorized? | U.S. policy toward authoritarian governments has been turned on its head: The victims of terrorism are being denied protection and sanctuary (George Rupp, Los Angeles Times, Mar. 29)
Real injustice | The REAL ID Act's effects have been cruel to people already oppressed by vile regimes and terrorist groups. The law needs to be changed (Editorial, The Washington Post, Mar. 18)
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