Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Refugee Program Halted as DNA Tests Show Fraud

Thousands in Africa Lied about Families To Gain U.S. Entry

The State Department has suspended a humanitarian program to reunite thousands of African refugees with relatives in the U.S. after unprecedented DNA testing by the government revealed widespread fraud.

The freeze affects refugees in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Guinea and Ghana, many of whom have been waiting years to emigrate. The State Department says it began DNA testing with a pilot program launched in February to verify blood ties among African refugees. Tests found some applicants lied about belonging to the same family to gain a better chance at legal entry.

The U.S. has responded by halting refugee arrivals from East Africa, where hundreds of thousands of people have been stranded in precarious conditions since civil war erupted in the early 1990s. The temporary suspension has generated panic in African communities in the U.S., where thousands wait to be joined by relatives.

Typically, a refugee already living in the U.S., a so-called anchor, is entitled to apply for permission to bring a spouse, minor children, parents and siblings. The process requires interviews, medical examinations and security screening.

But suspicion has grown in recent years that unrelated Africans were posing as family members to gain entry. "This program is designed for people to reunify with family members" already in the U.S., says Barbara Strack, director of the refugee division at U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services. "We wanted to have empirical data" to confirm suspected fraud, she says.

In February, the State Department launched pilot testing in Kenya to verify family relationships, mainly among Somalis. When applicants arrived for a previously scheduled appointment, a U.S. official asked them to volunteer for a DNA test.

An expert then swabbed the cheek of those who claimed biological relationships, such as a mother and her purported children.

The cell samples were sent to labs in the U.S. for analysis.

As word spread, some applicants began missing appointments, and others refused to cooperate.

Laboratory analysis of the samples indicated a large portion of applicants weren't blood relations, as they claimed. "The results were dismaying," says Ms. Strack. "This told us we had a problem with the program."

The results prompted expansion of the testing to other countries. "We had high rates of fraud everywhere, except the Ivory Coast," says a State Department official.

In late April, the government decided to temporarily halt the family reunification resettlement program for East Africans. A government official confirms that "many thousands of people" are affected by the suspension, particularly Somalis and Ethiopians.

Refugee resettlement agencies report that arrivals have slowed to a trickle.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., home to the country's largest East African population, Catholic Charities hasn't handled a single family reunification case since March 19. The agency has resettled 35 East African families this year, compared with more than 450 last year and about 1,300 in 2006. "Everyone is calling or walking in here and asking what is going on," says Angela Fox, a resettlement worker at Catholic Charities.

Some refugees received a notice from U.S. authorities advising them that their case is on hold because relatives didn't show up for a scheduled interview or they refused to supply a DNA sample.

Those who agreed to take the test are also in limbo.

Abdirahman Dhunkal, who hails from Somalia, petitioned in early 2005 for his father, mother and six siblings who are in Kenya to join him in Minnesota.

Their case was approved in late 2006, but Mr. Dhunkal says that his family was asked to take a DNA test earlier this year. Since the cell samples were collected, "nothing has happened. We are still waiting," says Mr. Dhunkal, 31, who hasn't seen his family in 14 years.

The government testing has raised questions about using DNA as an immigration tool.

"No one condones people gaining entry by false means; the integrity of the program must be ensured," says Bob Carey, chair of Refugee Council USA, a coalition of U.S. agencies that work on refugee issues, and vice president of resettlement for the International Rescue Committee. However, he adds, "DNA is not the only means to assess family relationships."

Refugee advocates say the definition of family among Africans extends beyond blood relatives, especially when families fleeing persecution are scattered. "Some families are raising children who aren't their own but whom they call son or daughter," says Ms. Fox of Catholic Charities.

Refugee slots are precious. The world's uprooted people are estimated to number 37 million; only about 1% are resettled. As the largest recipient, the U.S. absorbs about half of all refugees who are resettled.

Such demand "creates an incentive to get past the system," says Ralston H. Deffenbaugh Jr., president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. "Desperation makes people more susceptible to abuse or bribery."

To be approved as a refugee, an applicant must establish that he or she has suffered persecution or has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, creed or origin.

Between Oct. 1, 2007, and Aug. 13 of this year, the U.S. admitted 45,644 refugees. For the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008, the Bush administration set a ceiling for African refugees at 16,000. But by Aug. 13, only 6,780 Africans had been admitted.

Family unity has long been a pillar of U.S. refugee admissions, with relatives accorded priority. U.S. officials say the government must balance a need to ensure the integrity of the program with the desire to let in vulnerable refugees.

The government hasn't decided whether to expand testing to compare the DNA of relatives in the U.S. with those abroad to verify kinship. Wall Street Journal

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