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Refugee Council USA supports Colombian refugees and IDPs
November 07, 2009

Refugee Council USA supports Colombian refugees and IDPs
A young girl eats a handful of rice outside her family's new home in a settlement for displaced Colombians outside of San Pablo, Colombia. (Shaina Aber – Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and other members of Refugee Council USA applaud steps the U.S. government is taking to provide for the assistance needs of Colombian refugees and internally displaced persons, and urge greater U.S. support of Colombian resettlement efforts. 

The Honorable Eric Schwartz
Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration
U.S. Department of State

Dear Assistant Secretary Schwartz,

On behalf of the members of Refugee Council USA, I would like to thank you for your recent letter detailing the steps the U.S. government is taking to provide for the assistance needs of Colombian refugees and internally displaced persons. As the number of Colombian refugees and IDPs continues to grow, such pro-active efforts are increasingly important in addressing the needs of the largest displaced population in our hemisphere. 

In addition to giving heightened attention to the assistance needs of this population, we hope you will also take immediate action to review the performance of the U.S. Colombian resettlement program. We are deeply concerned that the response of the United States to the resettlement needs of these individuals remains inadequate. For particularly vulnerable segments of this population resettlement is the only viable option. Improving protection for displaced Colombians will require a stronger resettlement response as well as improved assistance programs. This is especially critical given the limited resettlement capacity of other countries in the region. 

Until recently, the “material support bar” prevented the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program from effectively deploying resettlement as a tool of protection for the Colombian refugee crisis. While USCIS has now effectively addressed this issue for refugee applicants who provided material support to the FARC, AUC and ELN under duress, denial rates of refugee cases referred by UNHCR continue to increase.

While UNHCR has estimated that 15,944 Colombians are currently in need of resettlement, the United States accepted only 56 Colombians for resettlement in fiscal year 2009, despite its stated intention to accept 300 Colombian refugees. This continues a dismal trend of double-digit acceptances over the past four years. 

Although UNHCR increased the number of Colombian referrals in this last fiscal year, the denial rate for cases referred by UNHCR to the United States climbed precipitously, reaching approximately 62 percent. We believe that this denial rate is unacceptable given the severe and well-documented persecution suffered by this population. 

Ecuador hosts the largest Colombian refugee population in the Americas, estimated to number 135,000 to 200,000. The government of Ecuador has taken positive steps towards finding a solution for many Colombian refugees, despite significant political opposition within Ecuador and the incursion of Colombian paramilitary and guerilla forces into border regions, which threaten the physical security of refugees and Ecuadorans alike (see the appendix below, a recent statement by Rep. James McGovern on this issue). We encourage the U.S. to make greater use of resettlement as a strategic protection tool in the Ecuador context to encourage continued collaboration and commitment on the part of the Ecuadorian government, and to set an example for other countries in the region. As part of a regional strategy, U.S. resettlement out of Ecuador is all the more important since political difficulties with Venezuela will prevent the USRAP from participating in the resettlement of Colombian refugees out of that country, where the protection needs are no less significant than out of Ecuador. Other resettlement countries should focus on Venezuela, while the United States makes a concerted effort to resettle on a more appropriate scale out of Ecuador. 

The low number of Colombian refugees accepted by the United States is particularly troubling in light of the limited resettlement capacity of countries in the region. Second quarter resettlement numbers for calendar year 2009 indicate that only eight Colombian refugees have been resettled to Argentina, nine to Brazil, 15 to Uruguay, and 19 to Chile. While we support the concept of solidarity resettlement and encourage the countries in the region to continue offering protection to refugees from Colombia, in light of the limited resettlement capacity of Latin American countries we ask you to take action to recommit the United States to meeting this need. It should be noted that UNHCR hopes to resettle 4,644 Colombians in 2010 but estimates that it only has the capacity to resettle 1,408. We urge PRM will work with UNHCR to increase its capacity to resettle these vulnerable Colombian refugees in the coming year. 

In order to achieve this goal, we recommend the following:

(1) The Creation of a Regional OPE (Overseas Processing Entity) in Quito: One reason for the high denial rates on credibility grounds may be that South America is the only place in the world where refugee processing is done by a “virtual OPE” operating out of Roslyn, with form-filling being conducted by IOM as the result of ad hoc arrangements. As a result, refugee applicants and USCIS circuit riders alike may not be as well prepared as they are elsewhere in the world where there is a standing OPE with well-trained caseworkers. We request that PRM urgently issue an RFP for an OPE in Quito, and encourage that such OPE to work with UNHCR to ensure a more appropriate level and quality of referrals; and

(2) Work with USCIS to Clarify Denials on the Basis of “Firm Resettlement”: While UNHCR focuses its referrals on refugees whose protection or durable solution needs are not being met in Ecuador, USCIS continues to deny many UNHCR referrals on the grounds of “firm resettlement.” We ask PRM – as the coordinator of the USRAP – to urge USCIS to develop clearer guidance on firm resettlement, taking into account that refugee status in countries like Ecuador often does not translate into the ability to exercise basic rights or access basic services, especially for the most vulnerable refugees. Such guidance would greatly help improve the quality not only of USCIS adjudications, but also of UNHCR referrals and OPE case preparation. Similarly, USCIS circuit riders should be thoroughly briefed on country conditions for refugees in Ecuador. Refugee Council USA would be pleased to contribute trainers to such briefings.

The protection needs of Colombian refugees are serious and in need of immediate attention. RCUSA members welcome your leadership on this issue. We would greatly appreciate the opportunity to meet with you and other lead agencies including UNHCR and USCIS to discuss this urgent humanitarian issue. RCUSA staff will follow up directly with your office to schedule a meeting. 


Robert J. Carey
Chair, Refugee Counc

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