Overview of U.S. Refugee Policy
The world's refugee population is estimated to be some 11.4 million personsper United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) data for the end of calendar year 2007. Nearly 26 million more are displaced within their own countries by war, famine, and civil unrest. The United States works with other governments and international and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to protect refugees, internally displaced persons, and conflict victims, and strives to ensure that basic human needs for food, health care, water and sanitation, education, and shelter are met. The United States has been instrumental in mobilizing a community of nations to work through these organizations to protect and assist refugees worldwide, supporting major humanitarian relief operations and seeking durable solutions for refugees. For the vast majority of refugees, voluntary return to their homelands is the preferred solution. Where voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity is not feasible, other durable solutions are sought, including local integration in countries of asylum or resettlement in third countries.
Third country resettlement, including in the United States, is appropriate for refugees in urgent need of protection and for refugees for whom other durable solutions are inappropriate or unavailable. The United States considers for admission as refugees persons of special humanitarian concern who can establish that they experienced past persecution or have a well-founded fear of future persecution in their country of origin on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The legal basis for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) is the Refugee Act of 1980, which embodies the American tradition of granting refuge to diverse groups suffering from, or fearing, persecution. The Act adopted the definition of "refugee" contained in the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The following describes the program's efforts, by region, in meeting the needs of refugees worldwide who have faced religious persecution.
The USRAP processes refugee cases referred by UNHCR, U.S. embassies, and certain NGOs and works closely with them to strengthen this referral process.
For the majority of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, religious freedom is the norm, even where other conflicts hold sway or where there has been communal violence along sectarian lines as in Nigeria. The primary exceptions have been Sudan and Eritrea.
During the 22-year civil war between "North" and "South" the Government of Sudan conducted or tolerated attacks on civilians, indiscriminate bombing raids, and slave raids in the south, all with a religious as well as an ethnic dimension. Although the conflict in Darfur involves human rights abuses based on ethnic differences, it lacks the religious dimensions of the North-South conflict. With the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the North-South conflict, an interim National Constitution entered into force that includes specific religious freedom guarantees. The country remains in a state of political transition; however, the Government of National Unity has continued to impose some restrictions on non-Muslims in the north, while permitting the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) to develop a secular administration respecting the rights of Christians, Muslims, and others in the south. During Fiscal Year 2007, 704 Sudanese refugees who had found refuge in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Kenya (primarily) were resettled in the United States. Although gains of the CPA remain tentative, efforts are focused primarily on repatriation of refugees to Southern Sudan. However, UNHCR continues to refer a limited number of Sudanese refugees in need of protection for consideration by the USRAP.
The Government of Eritrea continues to engage in systematic and egregious violations of religious freedom, including harassing, arresting, and detaining members of independent evangelical groups (including Pentecostals), Jehovah's Witnesses, and a reform movement within the Eritrean Orthodox Church. It also sought greater control over the four approved religious groups: the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church of Eritrea, and Islam. Often detainees held for their religious affiliations were not formally charged, accorded due process, provided medical treatment, or allowed access to their families; some are reportedly held in harsh conditions that include extreme temperature fluctuations. While many were ostensibly jailed for evasion of military conscription, significant numbers were being held solely for their religious beliefs or attending a non-registered church. Eritrea, with 963 arrivals to the U.S. was one of the four countries of origin (together with Somalia, Burundi, and Liberia) that account for the majority of African refugee arrivals to the United States in FY 2007.
While many governments in East Asia permit freedom of worship, religious believers face serious persecution in some countries. The Department of State has designated Burma, China, and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) as "Countries of Particular Concern" for systematic, egregious, and ongoing violations of religious freedom.
Genuine religious freedom does not exist in the DPRK. Consistent with the intent of the North Korean Human Rights Act, the United States has recently resettled some North Korean refugees in the United States.
The Government of China either prohibits or severely restricts independent religious activities. The Government continues to suppress, intimidate, harass, detain, and imprison some followers of those religions or spiritual movements not registered with the Government, most notably the (underground) Catholic Church loyal to the Vatican, Protestant "house churches," some Muslim groups, Buddhists loyal to the Dalai Lama, and the Falun Gong spiritual movement.
In Burma the government maintains a pervasive internal security apparatus that generally infiltrates or monitors meetings and activities of all organizations, including religious groups. The government actively promotes Buddhism over other religions as a means of boosting its own legitimacy and continues harsh discrimination against members of minority religions. In FY 2007, the U.S. resettled 13,896 refugees from Burma, processed primarily in Thailand and Malaysia.
In Vietnam there have been a number of significant improvements in law and practice over the past 3 years, and the majority of Vietnamese who wish to follow a religion do so without significant harassment or interference. However, uneven implementation of religion laws, burdensome official oversight of recognized groups, and harassment of some groups continue to be serious problems. Some religious practitioners, especially ethnic minority Protestants and members of the banned United Buddhist Church of Vietnam, continue to suffer harassment, arbitrary detention, and physical intimidation, although reports of such incidents have declined. The Government claimed that it did not hold any religious prisoners; instead, people are usually convicted of violating national security laws or general criminal laws. While determining the facts in these cases is extremely difficult due to the lack of transparency in the justice system, religious leaders from the major religious groups report that they do not have any followers in prison for their faith. In Laos Protestants in particular suffer occasional arrest and imprisonment and forced renunciation cases, though isolated have recently been on the rise.
Europe and Central Asia
In recent years the fear of newer religious groups, many of them with ties to coreligionists in other countries, has led to a backlash in a number of post-Soviet states. Most of these states regulate religious groups and activities, specifying a set of "traditional" religions with certain privileges denied to other groups. They require registration and use this as a mechanism of control; by refusing to register certain new denominations they make such groups vulnerable to charges of illegal association.
The USRAP provides resettlement opportunities to religious minority members (as identified in the Lautenberg Amendment) with close family ties to the United States. The Department of State continues to work with the UNHCR, NGOs (both faith-based and nonsectarian), human rights groups, and U.S. diplomatic missions to identify refugees for whom resettlement is appropriate, including persons who qualify under the 1980 act on religious grounds. The USRAP has provided protection to Muslims, Jews, evangelical Christians, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians as well as individuals of other religious minorities.
In Belarus, and to a lesser degree in Russia, some minority religious groups suffer harassment and difficulties finding places to meet. In Belarus groups with international ties are sometimes accused of being security threats. In Russia there were indications that the security services treated the leadership of some groups as security threats. In some countries one's faith may be associated with ethnicity, patriotism, nationalism, or even with terrorism; and authorities may be suspicious of religious groups perceived as having political agendas and organizations.
In the case of Uzbekistan, members of Islamic groups not approved by the State are often seen as potential terrorists and suffer harassment or imprisonment, as do members of some Christian or other minority religious groups with ethnic Uzbek members, who are seen as politically and socially destabilizing. In the case of Turkmenistan, although the level of harassment has decreased, the Government continues to restrict all forms of religious expression.
Repression of religious minorities is common in some countries in South Asia. In Pakistan discriminatory legislation persists, and the Government fails to take action against religious intolerance and acts of violence and intimidation against religious minorities, including Ahmadis, Christians, and Hindus. In India some state governments limited religious freedom and police and enforcement agencies often did not act swiftly enough to effectively counter communal attacks, including attacks against religious minorities such as Muslims and Christians. In Afghanistan, despite constitutional guarantees, religious freedom is limited because of legislative ambiguity, a developing judiciary, and deference to local interpretations of Shari'a Law. Years of weak democratic institutions have contributed to intolerance manifested in acts of harassment against reform-minded Muslims and religious minorities. The Department of State continues efforts to improve access to refugee processing through dialogue with NGOs organizations and human rights groups who may identify victims with valid claims based on grounds of religious persecution. The UNHCR also has addressed religious persecution issues in several regional workshops to increase the sensitivity of protection and resettlement officers to victims of religious persecution.
Repression of religious minorities is common in the Near East. In Saudi Arabia public non-Muslim worship is prohibited, as is conversion of a Muslim to another religion. In Iran members of minority religious groups continue to face arrest, harassment, and discrimination. In 2004 Congress passed a law that adds "members of a religious minority in Iran" to the list of categories of aliens who, in refugee processing, may benefit from reduced evidentiary standards for demonstrating a well-founded fear of persecution. Iranians who belong to religious minorities (Baha'is, Sufis, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Christians) are able to apply directly for U.S. resettlement processing.
The UNHCR and U.S. embassies in the region facilitate access to the admissions program for individuals of other nationalities, including those who may qualify on religious grounds. The UNHCR also has addressed religious persecution issues in several regional workshops.
Religious freedom is widely respected in the Western Hemisphere. An exception is Cuba. The Cuban Constitution recognizes the right of citizens to profess and practice any religious belief within the framework of respect for the law; however, the Government continues to place restrictions on freedom of religion. The Ministry of Interior through its state security apparatus engages in active surveillance of religious institutions. Certain groups, particularly Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses, faced significant harassment and maltreatment. Students who are Jehovah's Witnesses reported being severely punished for not saluting the flag or singing the national anthem. Punishment reportedly took the form of public ridicule, screamed insults, social isolation, or physical abuse by school staff. Some Jehovah's Witness parents alleged that officials threatened to prosecute them under Articles 315 and 316 of the Penal Code (Acts Contrary to the Normal Development of a Minor). However, according to the majority of officially recognized religious organizations, there was a slight improvement in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Various religious groups reported fewer restrictions on politically-sensitive expression, fewer importation and travel restrictions, permission to repair buildings, and significant increases in membership. The U.S. refugee admissions program (USRAP) is a component of the U.S.-Cuba Migration Agreement that allows for the acceptance of at least 20,000 Cubans annually for permanent residence in the United States under the Priority 2 category that includes religious persecution. The U.S. refugee admissions program explicitly includes religious minorities and other human rights activists.