Ernest Pyaohn fled Burma with his family in 1996 because government soldiers were threatening his community. Pyaohn is Karen, a minority group with Mongolian origins that lives in southern Burma and Thailand.They found their way to a temporary settlement in Thailand near the border, expecting to be there only several months.
But waiting in a potentially unending state of limbo, refugees cannot decide when they will leave the refugee camp, where they will go, or even under what circumstances. With nowhere else to go, Pyaohn’s family ended up staying for 10 years. During that time, Pyaohn made several entreaties to the camp administration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to have his family considered for resettlement outside of Thailand.
As a member of a minority group among the Burmese refugees in the camp, he was repeatedly told that members of the majority must be provided for before he and other Karen people could be resettled. Pyaohn displayed considerable frustration at his inability to sway or affect the priorities of officials. With almost no control over his family’s future, he began to lose hope.
Resettlement offers refugees the chance for a permanent residence, employment, and education as opposed to the transient nature and insecurity of a refugee camp. Many families are eager to leave camps behind because of poor conditions and inadequate health resources. They can petition to leave but it is up to UNHCR to permit and process it.
“The UNHCR is the first entity that’s responsible for looking at refugee populations and assessing their needs” explains Darwensi Clark, Heartland Alliance‘s manager of resettlement, placement and adjustment services for refugees. “Obviously the individuals who are processed first are those individuals with immediate health concerns and who are at extreme risk, not only from their own countries but also at risk in the refugee camp.”
Many refugees, however, come from areas where there is civil conflict. Combatants are often not eligible for resettlement, a complicated issue in countries where child soldiers and forced conscription are common practice.
Countries that receive refugees for resettlement also have quotas. In the U.S. for example, the maximum number of refugees that can be resettled in one year is 80,000 individuals. The Overseas Processing Entity (OPE) is in charge of determining which refugees and how many go to each country.
“Family unification is paramount…but that doesn’t happen a lot because of the power struggle between the UN who is just trying to get populations out of areas of conflict as quickly as possible and the OPE who is directly responsible to the U.S. State Department to hit that ceiling. Usually it’s the case that can move the fastest that gets out the quickest rather than ensuring that cases that can be successful in the US get here,”Clark says.
The ability to reach this glass ceiling also depends on the ability of Voluntary Resettlement Agencies (VOLAGs) in the U.S. to successfully manage their caseloads. “If a refugee resettlement agency is saying ‘here are our restraints at allocations,’ it ultimately affects who is able to come through the pipeline because the UN won’t be able to process those cases as quickly,” explains Clark.
According to Clark, the U.S. is on track to resettle 80,000 refugees this fiscal year. It will be the first year since 2001. “Prior to 9/11 we were talking about over 100.000 refugees resettled every year and last year was the first year that we even came close to resettling 80,000 individuals because of that fear of inviting in individuals that we don’t have sufficient security checks for.”
Despite the many challenges Pyaohn got word in 2006 that his family would be among the thousands resettled in the U.S. that year. Again, he and his family were at the mercy of resettlement officers. They had no say in where they would be resettled, or the circumstances that they would find themselves in when they arrived. This experience is quite common.
“They can have some say in the country…but because the refugee pool is so large it’s more of a UN decision than a refugee decision,” says Clark.
With only minimal knowledge about what they would face, Pyaohn and his family landed in Chicago. He is now a health promoter for a human rights organization and he feels as if he and his family once again have control over their lives.