Last week, I started outlining a very basic version of the process that takes a refugee from living in a camp to living in a "third country." In our hypothetical example, Samy fled his home country to a refugee camp, was officially recognized as a refugee by the local authority, then registered as a refugee with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and was determined to be eligible for resettlement.
Sounds straightforward enough, but it isn't—and it only gets more complicated from here.
In order to be resettled, Samy needs a referral from the UNHCR to the U.S. government. The UNHCR can make both individual referrals and group referrals. The UNCHR actually made a group referral for refugees in the camps on the Thai-Burmese border back around 2005, which was accepted by the U.S. government. And that’s why since then, tens of thousands of Burmese refugees have found homes in the United States every year. The refugees who were registered with the UNHCR at that time have by now either been resettled, are in the midst of the process, or have opted out of resettlement altogether.
Unfortunately for him, Samy arrived in the camps after the major registration of 2005, and the Thai government has only allowed further registration sporadically since then. But let’s say that Samy was indeed registered, and referred, then what?
Kay Bellor, the IRC's vice president of U.S. programs, explains what happens next: “In general, the U.S. will work with an NGO or the International Office of Migration to what we call ‘process’: Every refugee that comes to the U.S. has to have a face-to-face interview, in person, with an official with the Department of Homeland Security.” (If the term "processing" strikes you as a tad Big Brothery, you’re not alone.)
Most of the responsibility for building a case for each refugee that gets processed falls to NGOs like the IRC that operate in nations that host refugees around the world. Essential to the procedure are NGOs that work as Overseas Processing Entities, or OPEs, that would take on Samy’s case. They work to provide the U.S. government with information about referred refugees, help build their cases for resettlement, and make sure the refuge gets a hearing with a US official. The IRC is one such OPE—and yes, the acronyms keep on coming.
Bellor describes how all these parts typically move: “Once everyone agrees that processing can take place, then the records for the referrals are transferred to the State Department, and then the State Department engages with NGOs, and in many areas of the world with the International Organization of Migration.” And that’s when the processing starts—and this is what the IRC would be doing: "We basically have a whole system where we’re gathering biographical information on the refugees and we’re preparing their application for refugee status, and we’re coordinating with the Dept. of Homeland Security to get that refugee interviewed.”
The officials from the DHS are deployed around the world, and Samy would have to do an interview with such an official. And then they’d decide whether or not he was fit for resettlement in the United States.
Basically, Samy has been waiting around most of this time, providing the NGOs with as much information as he can, and fielding questions galore. Imagine if you had to spend months on end splitting your time between the DMV and a doctor’s office—living in a refugee camp the entire time, of course—and that might begin to approximate how the process might feel.
Finally Getting to the John Denver Part . . .
So once a refugee is approved by Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the State Department, the wheels start turning in the bureaucratic machine on the other side of the world. As Bellor says, “there’s a process legally where the biographical information is distributed among Resettlement Agencies in the United States.” These resettlement agencies, or Voluntary Agencies, or VOLAGs (I know, I know), are the groups that handle refugee affairs here in the United States.
The IRC is both an overseas processing entity and a voluntary resettlement agency, and there are 9 or 10 other major ones operating in the States. One of them would then commit to the Samy’s case, agreeing to provide him with a number of services, including lodging, job hunting, community integration, and so on.
Assuming that he’s passed all the medical and security exams, been deemed fit for resettlement after his interview with the DHS, and been granted clearance by the Thai government to legally leave the country, Samy would finally be able to get to the leavin’ on a jet plane part.
A representative of the resettlement agency would actually meet Samy right at the airport. And voilà! Samy begins his new life as a resident in America.
But that day seems light years away, seeing as Samy is hung up on what’s pretty much the first step: Because of Thai law, he can’t access the UNCHR to be recognized as a refugee in the first place. Without access to the UNHCR, resettlement is out of the question. As Bellor says with a sigh, “It always comes back to access.”