WASHINGTON – A tight budget this year could mean a drop in the number of refugees settling in the United States, although President Bush's spending plan for 2006 would increase money for refugee assistance.
The State Department can resettle about 40,000 refugees this year, slightly more than half the ceiling of 70,000 set by Bush, with its current budget.
Refugee assistance groups hope to persuade Congress to include more money for refugee resettlements in an emergency spending bill for tsunami relief and the war in Iraq (search). The House Appropriations Committee was considering the spending bill Tuesday afternoon.
In 2004, the State Department spent $781 million for refugee and migration assistance. Congress gave the department $764 million for fiscal year 2005, a cut of about 2.2 percent.
However, the cost per refugee has increased from $2,200 in 2001 to about $3,500 last year, according to the department. The increased costs resulted from more thorough background checks, rising fuel prices and, in some cases, moving refugees to more secure locations.
Bush has requested $53 million for refugee assistance for Chad (search) and the Sudan (search), but that money can't be used for resettling refugees to the United States.
The State Department has told refugee advocacy groups it will need at least $40 million more this year to bring in 60,000 refugees, said Sarah Petrin, senior government liaison for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (search), an advocacy group.
Bush has proposed $893 million for fiscal 2006, which begins Oct. 1. Gideon Aronoff — the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society's (search) vice president of government relations and policy — said that shows the president wants to deal with the money shortage.
Some of the money would go to groups that help provide food, latrines, security and counseling to refugees at camps.
"We are facing a really troubling possibility that after turning the corner last year with 52,000-plus refugee admissions, we're actually going to go backward this year," Aronoff said. "This is going to happen despite the fact that the State Department asserts it can find more than 60,000 refugees for admission this year. It is purely a matter of funding."
The United States admitted 69,304 refugees in 2001 but suspended admissions briefly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Admissions dropped to 27,029 in 2002 as the federal government intensified screening of refugees. Admissions crept up to 53,000 in the 2004 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30.
"We continue to work as hard as possible to find the funding," said Robert Hilton, a State Department spokesman.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government is hiring a 45-member "refugee corps" whose members would travel for about half the year conducting interviews at refugee camps, said Bill Strassberger, spokesman for the Homeland Security Department's Citizenship and Immigration Services agency. Currently, officials rotate employees in such jobs.