Terrorist or terrorized?

GEORGE RUPP is president of the International Rescue Committee.

IN HIS SECOND inaugural address, President Bush made a stirring commitment to oppressed people yearning to be free: “When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.”

For half a century, one of the best expressions of that bond has been the federal Refugee Resettlement Program. This State Department-administered program seeks to offer a safe harbor to those fearing persecution by tyrannical governments. But thousands of people whose lives are at risk for standing up for freedom will this year be denied help because of a Kafkaesque interpretation of who is deemed a terrorist.

The laws governing eligibility for refugee status have long denied it to anyone who commits a terrorist act or who provides “material support” to terrorists. These laws were strengthened after 9/11. The problem was created by recent legislation that expanded the definition of terrorists. There are real-life consequences from such myopic “reform.”

In Colombia, for example, the leftist guerrilla group FARC often kidnaps civilians and demands ransom from their relatives. FARC also requires the payment of a “war tax” from Colombians in the regions it controls, upon threat of serious harm. Nearly 2,000 Colombians who faced such circumstances as paying a ransom or “tax” -- and who later fled the country and were determined by the United Nations to be refugees -- have been denied U.S. resettlement on the basis of the “material support” provision.


In Liberia, a female head of a household was referred to the U.S. resettlement program by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as a person particularly vulnerable to attack. Rebels had come to her home, killed her father and beat and gang-raped her. The rebels held her hostage in her own home and forced her to wash their clothes. The woman escaped after several weeks and made her way to a refugee camp. The Department of Homeland Security has decided that because the rebels lived in her house and she washed their clothes, she had provided “material support” to the rebels; the case has been placed on hold.

A Sierra Leonean woman’s house was attacked by rebels in 1992. A young family member was killed with machetes, another minor was subjected to burns and the woman and her daughter were raped. The rebels kept the family captive for days in their own home. Homeland Security has placed the case on hold for “material support” concerns because the family is deemed to have provided housing to the rebels. Under this interpretation, it does not matter whether the support provided was given willingly or under duress.

Unfortunately, the actions of Homeland Security go far beyond barring the affected refugees from entering the U.S. They become permanently tainted by suspicions of terrorism and find themselves shut out by other nations that resettle refugees. And the governments now providing these people with temporary asylum might even force them back to the nations they fled.

U.S. policy toward authoritarian governments has been turned on its head: The victims of terrorism are being denied protection and sanctuary. The secretary of Homeland Security has the authority to determine that the “material support” provision shall not apply to certain individuals or groups. Yet the department has failed to issue guidance, causing mass confusion and holding up decisions on refugee cases. Neither the administration nor Congress seems able to fix the problem for fear of being labeled weak on terrorism.

Yes, we must remain vigilant against terrorists. But in order to implement Bush’s commitment to stand with those seeking liberty at great personal risk, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff or Congress must rectify the injustice that treats victims of coercion as supporters of terrorism.