Project Refuge Week 2: The Wait
I’ll never forget the moment I looked into his eyes. They were dark brown, similar to mine, but they held the sights of a different life. He had wrinkles around them, though he couldn’t have been far beyond his mid thirties. He could be younger- I’m terrible with age. He was always smiling, always laughing. I only sometimes understood him, but he still made me smile. This time he was serious. His room was hot, as they all were, and it was loud with the sounds of camp life. When I asked my friend why he left his home country, he told me, in very simple English, that he had no other choice. His family had all died in a bombing, and he would probably be next.
Safety has never been a fear of mine. Not because I am brave, or strong, but because I am privileged. I am privileged to be white; I am privileged to have been born into a safe home, town, and family. I have never had to worry about many things that nearly 1% of the world’s population has. Amazingly, nearly 1 in 100 people today are displaced from their homes (Pew Research Center). Displacement caused, primarily, by fear, pain, and desperation. Each and every one of these displaced persons has a story, and a very sobering reality. Not all of those 60 million people have refugee status, and the refugees among them are, in ways difficult for Westerners to grasp, more fortunate than their counterparts.
The process to officially becoming a refugee is messy, long, and, unfortunately, does not always mean life will be better after an application for such status is filed. In many cases, the situation can get worse- at least temporarily. Once a displaced person reached a new country, he or she may submit an application for refuge to the government of that country or to the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). An applicant can wait months between steps in the application process. When establishing refugee status, the UNHCR follows very strict guidelines laid out in the 1951 Refugee Convention, a meticulously written legal document that defines who qualifies as a refugee, and how one may achieve refugee status.
This process, from application to resettlement, typically lasts anywhere from 18 months to 3 years depending on multiple factors, but mostly on how under-staffed the operation is. Many cases have been known to last longer that that, though, and some can last longer than two decades (Bauman et al). During this waiting period, refugees are retained in refugee camps, small communities where safety and comfort are no guarantee. While these camps were established to serve and protect refugees in the transition period, many camps fall short of that goal by failing to supply enough food, monetary allowance, and even safety. Camp guards may be prejudiced toward the residents, causing tension between the two. When I was stationed at a camp in Hungary, garbage littered the residence halls, standing water covered the bathroom floors, and small families were cramped in rooms smaller than my college dorm room. Combine that with governments and communities that treat refugees with hostility and violence, and 18 months to 3 years starts to feel a whole lot longer.
So here’s the process, according to me. Buckle up.
Let’s pretend that a man, let’s call him Adnan Safar, decides that his country is no longer safe for him and his family (his wife Uri and daughter Laya). Upon making this decision, Adnan and his family could try to pack up precious belongings, but would most likely leave with only the clothes on their backs so they could travel more conspicuously. Although my research does not focus on the flight period, I know from talking with various current and former refugees that it can be brutal, exhausting, and a constant battle between adrenaline and exhaustion. A former refugee I taught, who is currently under asylum in France, said that the hardest part of being a refugee, for him, was the journey from his home country to Europe. Many refugees are not as fortunate as him to make it that far.
"The flight period... can be brutal, exhausting, and a constant battle between adrenaline and exhaustion."
In order for a decision to flee to be recognized by a state or the UNHCR, it must fall under one of three basic principles outlined in the 1951 Refugee Convention:
A person has well-founded fear of persecution (based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group)
A person is outside of their country of nationality or habitual residence and is unwilling or unable to forfeit the protection of that country, or
A person is the victim of persecution based on one or more of the reasons listed under step number one (as opposed to having a fear of these things happening)
If Adnan were faced with any of the three reasons for flight above, he could potentially qualify for status as a refugee. However, even if his story is legitimate, it could still take years for the status to be approved. He would have to prove the legitimacy of his story over and over again. Once Adnan and his family fled his country and filed for refuge, they would be subject to two grueling processes. The first is to simply wait. Wait in an over-crowded, under-sourced camp with tin shanties for housing, or dilapidated buildings that could have served any form of function in their past. The camp I worked in was a former Soviet army base. While the Soviets left, their aura remained. Communal living, minimal monetary allowance, and rationed everything else. Life in refugee camps largely depends on the charity of others, as Doug Bandow points out in an article for Forbes magazine, religious organizations, community centers, hospitals and health clinics largely contribute to an attempt at an acceptable quality of life in camps. Unfortunately, this isn’t always enough. The Zaartari refugee camp in Jordan, even with outside charity, went without electricity for nine months when the UNHCR could not provide the resources to pay the Jordanian government. Although multiple government agencies and NGO’s may support a camp, the overwhelming number of refugees living there can mean that those efforts are simply not enough.
"This decision- whether to approve refugee status or not- holds immense weight for the future and safety of the applicant and their family."
So, waiting is a struggle. The second process, equally grueling in every way, is the Refugee Status Determination process (RSD). The task of determining refugee status falls on the state where people like Adnan and his family flees. If the state fails or refuses to do so (consistently growing more common), the UNHCR can take over. This decision- whether to approve refugee status or not- holds immense weight for the future and safety of the applicant and their family. Granting status can sometimes mean the survival or the ending of a family line.
The RSD process itself is, though fraught with technicalities and minuscule operations, generally easy to understand. The UNHCR has a standard set of rules for the RSD process, but each process looks different depending on who is applying, and where they are seeking status. An RSD process would look different for a woman applying for refuge in Germany versus a family of five applying for refuge in France. The purpose of this differentiation is, similarly to the classroom, to provide equity in the process. The UNHCR has recognized that equal treatment is not always better, because real life circumstances are vastly different in each case and play a crucial role in considering refuge.
It is not guaranteed that an application will be immediately reviewed. In reality, many applications are not reviewed for months. According to the UNHCR’s website, in 2013, the UNHCR’s RSD backlog rose to over 250,000 applications. This is the result of the failure of local and international governments to process these applications, passing the burden to the UNHCR which has a much smaller operation. This causes applications to pile up, and creates a cycle of insufficient attention paid to each application. While the UNHCR is doing all that they can, it hardly feels like it’s enough- because it’s not.
The RSD practice grants due process to all applicants, though status may certainly be denied if a person is not in need of international protection, or has committed certain serious crimes or heinous acts. However, such acts will not immediately disqualify a candidate. A person may still be granted Refugee status depending on the circumstances of such acts, and their personal involvement in those acts. A person fleeing in fear of persecution, not prosecution, should be granted status regardless of the past. It would not do well to think that the majority of cases include people that fit this profile. It is actually more the case that thousands of cases are delayed because of the U.S.’ extremely broad terrorism-related provisions in immigration policies (migrationpolicy.org). So, instead of focusing on restricting immigration policy even further, it should be the response to narrow the reach of some of our policies to reduce their effect on thousands of innocent lives each year.
In short, the RSD process can take anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on demand and the resources available to meet it. Once an application is submitted, an appointment for review between an agent and the applying refugee will be set, but it could potentially be scheduled years out. Even after that meeting a decision for status may not be made for another year, positive or negative.
If an application is accepted for resettlement to the United States, somewhat rare in the grand scheme of things but the focus of my research, a family like Adnan’s would wait an additional 18 months to 3 years before entry was granted or denied, enduring a vetting process even more intense that the RSD process.
It is wise, finally, to acknowledge that the existence of complicated cases involving the very real, very delicate lives of thousands of displaced peoples is not a fact that is up for debate. Minimizing people to numbers, religious groups, or racist assumptions only allows pervasive lies and misinformation to continue to dominate the media and public opinion. Anger can be a very strong, very valuable tool (a tool which drives my research and writing on this topic). Misinformed or polluted anger, though, endangers access for millions of people to the basic human rights of safety and freedom. I am not suggesting that you blindly allow someone into your home. I am suggesting, however, that the only way to know that what you believe is right is to look into the eyes of a man or woman who has given up everything for a chance at what you have, and to listen to their story. Do not talk, do not react, just listen. For to be heard is the first step to being understood, and to be understood is what 1% of the world needs right now.