November 26, 2003

Refugees in San Diego: a silent community in need

By Emmanuelle Le Texier

Victims of war, civil conflicts, or political persecution, there are currently an estimated 14 million refugees worldwide. Refugees are people who have fled their native countries and cannot return due to a legitimate fear of persecution, based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinions (defined by the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugee Status).

The refugees might have been first internally displaced people (IDPs) before fleeing and crossing international borders. After the enormous influx of European and Asian refugees fleeing from the World War II damages, various States decided to get together to build an international organization that could help refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was created in 1950 to deal with emergency responses in case of conflict, to protect and ensure the survival of refugees, and to find long-term solutions for people. This last mandate consists in repatriation to the home country once safe, integration in the host country or resettlement in a third country.

In the U.S., the U.S. Government determines the number of refugees it will accept each year.

In San Diego, the IRC (International Rescue Committee) is the agency responsible for resettling refugees in the county. Its activities range from registering children in school to employment preparation and placement, from immigration and citizenship services to language and basic skills for women etc.

The IRC opened an resettlement office in San Diego almost thirty years ago, in 1975, when Camp Pendleton was a staging ground for Vietnamese refugees resettling in the U.S. The refugee population coming to San Diego has varied over the period. In the 1980s, refugees from Eastern Europe and East Africa began arriving. In the early 1990s, refugees from Bosnia, the Former Soviet Union and Somalia added to the diversity.

Now refugees come also from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Vietnam etc. Since 1975, 66% of the total resettled refugees in San Diego are from Asia, 20% from Africa, 7% from Europe and Former Soviet Union, 6% from near East, and 1% from Latin America. They form a diverse community and have specific needs because of the traumatic experiences they lived in their home countries and during their exile.

But in the aftermath’s of 9/11 , three concern regarding refugees protection are more and more problematic. First, foundations and federal government budget cuts affected the services provided by the IRC to the refugee community, especially for the resettlement program. Some program had been shut down, other delayed. It affects greatly the chances for refugees to start a new life in the best conditions possible. Second, reports of random acts of violence or hate-crimes committed against Muslim communities nationwide were of great concern. There was a fear that refugees who had fled from war and oppression would become re-traumatized. That’s why IRC produced a 28 minutes educational video, untitled Between Two Words, to provide knowledge and understanding of refugee Muslim youth. Third, the generosity of the U.S. Government has unfortunately been decreasing over the years.

While 130.000 refugees were admitted in 1992, less than 70.000 were resettled in 2001, and only 27.000 were accepted in 2002 due to the post 9/11 collateral effects.

Admissions were suspended as new procedures to screen refugees were added. The federal government also failed to allocate enough resources to handle these new procedures. San Diego was greatly affected with the lowest number of arrivals ever, from over 1.000 in 1992 to approximately 100 in 2002.

In ten years, numbers have dropped drastically for a community in need of protection. The human cost is high. Thousands of refugees wait in camps in deplorable conditions while they have been approved for admissions. Family reunification got stuck. This is, indeed, the result of a policy that valorizes a fight against terrorism over the protection of the most vulnerable population in the world.

The International Rescue Committee is the leading non-sectarian voluntary agency dedicated to serving refugees worldwide.

Founded in 1933 by Albert Einstein, the IRC assists refugees in thirty countries around the world and sixteen metropolitan areas in the U.S. IRC depends on volunteer involvement (mentor, tutor, tax preparer etc.) and also on donations (furniture, clothing, used cars, money etc.). The IRC San Diego: 619.641.7510 www.theIRC.org

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