Without Federal Funding Increase, Refugee Programs Struggle


WASHINGTON -- The Senate's decision last week to fund the government through a continuing resolution instead of an omnibus appropriations bill could have implications for refugees, eliminating an 18.5-percent increase in funding for refugee resettlement programs that would help refugees from Iraq, Burma, and other troubled regions, to settle in the United States.

Programs for refugee resettlement are strapped for funds, particularly as the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. creeps upward. The United States is authorized to admit up to 80,000 refugees for the fiscal year 2011 -- only a small fraction of those seeking aid worldwide.

For refugees who are accepted into the United States, the omnibus spending bill would have allowed for better social services and a stronger safety net for those who are taken from war-torn countries and expected to find work in the U.S. within three months.

"It takes longer to find jobs for refugees," Bob Carey, vice president of International Rescue Fund, told HuffPost. "They're particularly vulnerable to unemployment. A lot of the refugees we're seeing are coming with medical issues. They've been tortured or have injuries, or some haven't had medical treatment because of the war."

The omnibus bill could have provided these refugees with unemployment aid, job training, and an emergency housing support fund for those behind on rent or utilities payments.

"A lot of the resettlement programs are really more of an investment in the future," said Susan Krehbiel, vice president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. "It's the upfront resources that allow people to recover and become self-sufficient. Not having mental health in the first year will hurt a person's ability to take care of themselves in the second year."

Politicians from both sides of the aisle advocated increased funding for refugee programs after President Barack Obama requested the 18.5 percent increase. Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) wrote a "Dear Colleagues" letter in March urging their fellow lawmakers to approve the president's request for funding.

"The United States has made a commitment to assist those who have been displaced during the Iraq War, many of whom are persecuted because of their cooperation and assistance to U.S. troops abroad," the senators wrote. "Providing a minimum level of basic assistance is necessary to keep that commitment."

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a report in July stating that funding for refugee programs is too low, and that that, in turn, puts strain on local communities stepping in to fill the void. Lugar argued the government should either accept fewer refugees, or give more funding to programs designed to help those that are allowed into the country.

There could be major repercussions if the United States opts to take in fewer refugees, Casey said. "If the U.S. cuts back on this program, other countries may do the same -- it's happened before," he said.

The continuing resolution will not affect refugee arrivals until March 4, 2011, a State Department official told HuffPost.

But maintaining the same level of funding under the continuing resolution could make the country less responsive to need, Carey said.

"It's very difficult to respond to refugee crises if you don't know how much funding is going to be," he said. "Refugees don't have the luxury of waiting while these things are resolved."

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