Friends of Refugees

A U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program Watchdog Group

World Refugee Day 2012

Posted by Christopher Coen on June 20, 2012

Today, June 20th, is World Refugee Day, the day that the United Nations and countless civic groups around the world dedicate to raising awareness of refugees’ plight throughout the world. It’s also a good time for taking stock of our efforts to help and aid refugees. That effort must include an awareness that a healthy and democratic refugee resettlement program is one that can take both compliments and criticisms. A range of perspectives can help to challenge, stimulate, and improve thinking.

One way that the refugee resettlement program has avoided criticism has been to dismiss all of it as coming from anti-immigrant sentiments. But that’s too easy. People who are helping refugees to resettle, such as community volunteers, and even the refugees, have pointed out flaws in the program that they perceive from their own experiences. Often the program ignores these views. Certainly, an absence of independent voices makes for a skewed view of the resettlement program. Involving comments and advice from the public and the refugees is key to recognizing and dealing with various issues before it becomes too late to prevent broader damage.

Furthermore, those pesky questions about accountability are not going away. Participants in the resettlement program spend much time and effort on raising awareness of the plight of refugees, but the refugees have no rights as long as government oversight and resettlement agencies are not accountable. Unfortunately, government offices are set up with some oversight methodologies that protect contract non-compliant resettlement contractors, who act with the knowledge that there will be no adverse consequences. This ensures that these problems continue. In a telephone conversation I had with a key official in the US Department of State’s refugee office in early 2010, I questioned the lack of any adverse consequences (oversight teeth) when resettlement agencies were found to have violated basic provisions of government refugee resettlement contracts. The official stated that “perhaps” this could be considered. It’s now two years later and there hasn’t been any public discussion from that office about this issue. This additional lack of openness and transparency is troubling.

Any program, even one dedicated to humanitarian principles, operated in secrecy and with impunity for the problems that arise from errors and failings will inevitably result in serious consequences to those most at risk – in this case, the refugees.

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