For Some Refugees, Safe Haven Now Depends on a DNA Test | FRONTLINE | PBS

When Muna Guled, her husband and youngest daughter have been granted refugee standing in America two-and-a-half years in the past, their first precedence was to deliver over Guled’s three different youngsters, nonetheless stranded in Ethiopia after escaping famine and violence in Somalia.

That dream will quickly turn into actuality — however for less than two of the youngsters. The third, 17-year-old Roda, isn’t technically Guled’s daughter. She is her niece, who Guled unofficially adopted after the woman’s mom went lacking and her father and grandparents died.

Prior to now, this won’t have been an impediment. However the US now requires refugees hoping to reunite with their households to show that they’re associated — both via a DNA check, or with official adoption paperwork, which may be inconceivable to acquire in war-torn international locations. So when Guled’s two organic youngsters board a aircraft to fulfill their mom and sister in Ohio within the coming months, Roda will probably be left behind.

This has been devastating information for the household.

“Roda doesn’t have anyone else. She is scared of what’s going to occur to her alone. She is scared she can be kidnapped by unhealthy folks,” stated Guled via her 16-year-old daughter Awo, who translated by telephone. “Roda has stated she is going to kill herself if she can not come.”

Awo paused.

“Only a second, my mom is crying once more,” she stated.

The household’s story highlights the problems which have arisen because the federal authorities has tightened constraints on the principle program refugees have used to reunite with household within the U.S. By the late Nineties, this system was accountable for 15 to twenty p.c of all refugee arrivals in America, however due to a collection of restrictions imposed since then, it at the moment accounts for lower than 1 p.c. The modifications have stymied fraud — as they have been meant to. However at a time when the U.S. is bracing for hundreds of latest functions for shelter from refugees displaced by struggle in Syria, the restrictions have slowed — and in some circumstances outright denied — professional entries into the nation.


Struggle can scatter households throughout continents — a actuality lengthy acknowledged by U.S. refugee coverage. Shortly after the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program was signed into existence by President Ronald Reagan in 1980, the company established a household reunification program for refugees — now generally known as the P-3 program — permitting immigrants to deliver over relations fleeing disaster.

Within the years earlier than 9/11, as many as 13,000 refugees a 12 months joined family members within the U.S. via this system, based on State Division statistics.

Suspecting fraud, immigration officers started to rein in this system. Beginning in 1999, they no longer allowed prolonged households — siblings, grandparents, nieces and nephews — to use for entry, confining this system to spouses, youngsters and fogeys. In 2004, the Bush administration curbed this system additional. As a substitute of constructing this system accessible to any immigrant who arrived within the U.S. legally, it would solely be accessible to these who had been granted refugee standing or asylum.

However the struggle in Syria, which has displaced greater than 4 million from their houses, is fueling requires the Obama administration to ease a few of these restrictions. The U.S. has introduced plans to take in no less than 10,000 Syrian refugees over the following 12 months, and as soon as they arrive in America, these refugees will be capable of use the P-3 program.

Till then, although, the tens of hundreds of Syrians already in the U.S. via different immigration applications are barred from utilizing it to reunite with relations displaced by the violence. As a substitute, their main different is a separate visa program that at the moment has an eight-year ready listing.

Earlier this month, 84 members of Congress despatched a letter to the Obama administration asking it to develop P-3 eligibility. Rep. Invoice Pascrell, Jr. (D-N.J.), one of many letter’s authors, instructed FRONTLINE in an announcement that it made sense to just accept refugees who have already got assist within the U.S.

“These households would have a house prepared for them, a supply of economic assist, and the dedication to return to assist rebuild Syria after the struggle is over,” he stated.

A State Division official confirmed receiving the letter however declined to remark additional.


Even when these restrictions are loosened, refugees making use of for household reunification will face one other hurdle to clear: DNA testing.

The inspiration for this requirement was born in East Africa, the place greater than 1 million Somalians have been displaced from their nation by civil struggle and famine. Within the mid-2000s, the U.S. was offering refuge to about 10,000 Somalians a 12 months — a lot of whom went on to use to the household reunification program to deliver over family members.

Immigration officers suspected that some have been inventing “ghost youngsters,” and filling out functions for youngsters not associated to them. There had even been some experiences of brokers who bought the ghost youngsters’s slots for revenue, based on a U.S. Division of State official who spoke to FRONTLINE however requested to not be named.

So in early 2008, the State Division launched a pilot program to find out the extent of fraud by testing relationships utilizing DNA.

Within the preliminary pilot of 476 candidates in Nairobi, Kenya, solely 16 p.c have been genetically associated to each individual they stated was of their household. One other 39 p.c examined false for no less than one member of the family. Within the remaining 45 p.c of circumstances, candidates both refused to take part or didn’t present up for the check.

Officers interpreted these outcomes as proof of widespread fraud. The P-3 program was suspended, and didn’t reopen for greater than 4 years.

This surprised refugees all over the world, a lot of whom had spent years ready for P-3 functions to be accredited. Most have been instructed to use for an alternate visa, nevertheless it was much more restrictive than P-3 and shortly had a multi-year ready listing.

The suspension was likewise criticized by refugee advocates, who argued that fraud wasn’t the one rationalization for the pilot program’s outcomes. For instance, if a household had 5 youngsters and only one examined false, they might all be counted as fraudulent. And if any member of the household didn’t present up for a check, that household would even be thought-about fraudulent, even when the no-show was for a professional purpose.


Critics additionally took intention on the slender “nuclear household” idea that DNA assessments impose, famous a report by the  Immigration Coverage Middle, a nonpartisan immigration analysis group. Throughout struggle, youngsters whose dad and mom are useless or lacking are normally taken in by family members or neighbors. Official adoption paperwork isn’t the norm.

“It’s fully tone-deaf to the realities that refugees face,” says Jen Smyers, director of coverage and advocacy with the Church World Service Refugee and Immigration Program, a refugee resettlement company. “In Nairobi there are girls who, once they have been fleeing their village that was being burned, encountered a small baby on the aspect of the highway and picked it up and ended up elevating it for the following 5 years. They know in the event that they’re requested, ‘Did this baby come out of your physique?’ and say ‘No,’ they gained’t be capable of deliver the kid with them. So they are saying sure. That’s fraud, nevertheless it’s not gaming the system.”

There may be issues even when a baby does belong to the mom, famous legal professional Emily Holland in “Transferring the Digital Border to the Mobile Degree,” revealed within the California Legislation Evaluation: DNA assessments can flip up “long-buried cases of infidelity and rape, typically hid because of concern, stigma and disgrace.” Uncovering them can introduce new crises to already traumatized households.

The United Nations Refugee Company has beneficial that refugee employees verify relationships with paperwork, interviews and different instruments, and argues that DNA assessments needs to be used solely as a “final resort.”

However when the P-3 program was lastly reinstated in 2012, it got here with the requirement that each one parent-child relationships be proved via DNA assessments, or by official adoption papers. Refugees pay for the DNA assessments, which may value a number of hundred {dollars}, however are reimbursed for optimistic assessments.

Since then, fewer than 100 folks have arrived in the U.S. every year via the household reunification program, whereas lots of of further openings went unfilled. The State Division official stated it’s attainable these figures may develop as extra folks work via the brand new necessities, however that household reunification was unlikely to return to its former numbers.

David Martin, a regulation professor on the College of Virginia who helped form the Refugee Act of 1980 and has labored with each administration since then to refine it, famous that there is no such thing as a simple method to the issue. Even these circumstances which are fraudulent are sometimes “residing lives of determined privation” and badly in want of relocation, he stated. However so are hundreds of others, and it’s past the capability of the U.S. refugee program to take all of them.

“So that you make selections, and when the selection is to order some spots for relations, it makes sense to verify they’re actually relations,” he stated.

He famous that the system does have some flexibility and may make exceptions to the DNA rule on a case by case foundation to accommodate extraordinary circumstances.

Muna Guled hopes her household’s circumstances will permit them to discover a strategy to deliver her niece to America. Her different two youngsters had been residing in Mogadishu with their organic father, however they and Roda have now moved to Ethiopia as a result of it will likely be simpler to hitch their household within the U.S. from there. Guled’s two organic youngsters have handed the DNA check and they are able to fly to Ohio earlier than the tip of the 12 months.

Guled’s daughter, Awo, has turn into fluent in English in her two-and-a-half years in Columbus. She says she likes her new life in America.

“I feel my life is simply beginning now, I’m getting a great schooling, I really feel good in America,” Awo stated. “I simply marvel when my brother and my sisters can come and luxuriate in with me this lovely life.”

Katie Worth

Katie Value, Former Reporter, FRONTLINE

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