IRC Seeks Overhaul of Resettlement System for Iraqi RefugeesJune 24, 2009
In a new report, “Iraqi Refugees in the United States: In Dire Straits,” the International Rescue Committee’s Commission on Iraqi Refugees says resettlement continues to be a critical and lifesaving intervention for thousands of at-risk Iraqi refugees who are living in precarious conditions in exile and unable to return home safely. But, the federal program no longer meets the basic needs of today’s newly arriving refugees and requires urgent reform.
“The resettlement program in the United States fails individuals with high levels of vulnerability, especially during difficult economic times,” the report states.
In April 2009, the IRC Commission sent delegations to Atlanta and Phoenix to examine the bleak situation for Iraqi refugees and impediments to their successful assimilation. They interviewed dozens of Iraqi refugees, who expressed deep gratitude for their safety and freedom in the United States, but also painted a picture of intense anguish and frustration.
Many Iraqi newcomers have been unable to secure jobs. In the meantime, they are exhausting available resources, seeing their benefits expire, struggling to get by and facing eviction and destitution. A large number are war widows with young children who arrive here grieving and alone, with little if any work experience. Many others are highly educated professionals who hope to find work in their areas of expertise, but discover that even entry-level jobs are elusive. High numbers suffer emotional trauma, war-related injuries or chronic illnesses. Unstable living conditions and uncertainty about the future compound their psychological distress.
“Nearly all of the Iraqis we surveyed had expectations that they would receive better care from a government whose policies had a hand in their upheaval, particularly those who put their lives on the line to work for the U.S. military and government and were targeted as a result,” says IRC president George Rupp. “Few imagined that they would receive such short-term and limited assistance upon arrival or that they could become homeless in the country that offered them shelter. They deserve better.”
The Commission report says the resettlement program is “dangerously under-funded.” Under the current system, a one-time federal stipend of $900 is provided for each refugee arrival. The grant generally fails to cover immediate needs, including rent, clothing, household supplies and a range of vital services that aid agencies provide. Refugees may apply for other forms of state assistance, but it’s rarely sufficient to cover basic necessities. That puts the burden on resettlement agencies to fill in the gaps with increasingly scarce private resources.
“The U.S. resettlement program was designed nearly 30 years ago and hasn’t been seriously looked at since,” says Bob Carey, the IRC’s vice president of resettlement policy. “The success of the program is premised on refugees being able to find employment and become self-supporting in a short period of time. When that doesn’t happen, the system doesn’t work.”
Carey says the economic downturn has brought into sharp relief the serious deficiencies in the U.S. Refugee Admissions program.
The report concludes that the U.S. resettlement program is failing in its mandate to help refugees restart their lives in safety and dignity. “Immediate measures must be taken to ensure that Iraqis, as well as all other refugees resettled in America, do not fall victim to homelessness and poverty. A thorough examination and reform of the U.S. refugee resettlement process are urgently needed.”
The IRC’s Commission on Iraqi Refugees offers the following recommendations:
- Increase Federal Assistance: Congress should appropriate emergency funds to aid refugees at risk of eviction, ensure that funds for new arrivals keep up with the cost of living, expand eligibility for cash assistance and extend the time frame during which services can be accessed.
- Avoid the “Resettlement Lottery." The aid refugees receive varies significantly from state to state. Refugees should receive a viable and uniform package of services and assistance, no matter where they are resettled.
- Make Programs Flexible: The “one size fits all” approach doesn’t allow flexibility to target special needs of vulnerable refugees or cast a wider safety net during a recessionary economy.
- Improve Orientation: Refugees must be fully briefed about the benefits and challenges of resettlement so that they can make informed decisions about their future. Better information and preparation will speed their adjustment and assimilation after arrival.
- Conduct a Comprehensive Review: The program for domestic resettlement and assistance requires an extensive review to determine what works and what does not ahead of a needed overhaul of the system.
The full report and detailed recommendations are available here.
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