‘Kept In a State of Limbo’

Christmas came a day late for the inhabitants of Tham Hin, a Burmese refugee camp along the Thai border. On Dec. 26, U.S. President George W. Bush signed an omnibus spending bill containing two provisions that may change the lives of these refugees and the thousands of others around the world who live in fear of persecution in their home countries.

For years these refugees were kept in a state of limbo, forbidden to go to the United States by overly broad antiterrorist legislation that labeled them threats to homeland security and defined terrorism in a way that goes far beyond the more traditional definition—violent activities aimed at civilians—to include the use of any "dangerous device" for virtually any purpose, even to resist oppressive regimes that the United States opposes, and even if committed under the threat of death. Among the groups deemed to have been involved with terrorist activities are the Hmong, Mustang, Montagnards and Alzados—freedom fighters from Laos, Tibet, Vietnam and Cuba, respectively, and loyal allies of the United States in the Southeast Asia wars and in the effort to overthrow Fidel Castro in the 1960s. Also considered "terrorists" were Burma's ethnic groups like the Karen, Karenni, Arakan, Kayan and Chin, who struggled against a regime that has used terror against its own people.

But buried deep inside the omnibus bill is a set of provisions that could finally help these people. These groups will no longer be considered terrorist organizations, opening the pathway for their admission to the United States as refugees. Moreover, the law allows the heads of the Department of Homeland Security and Department of State to waive a rule in the antiterrorist legislation that bars entry to individuals who were combatants or trained as combatants. If exercised properly, this will undoubtedly help true freedom fighters who have been excluded from the United States only by dint of its broad definition of terrorists.

This definition has already kept out people like Lincoln, a soft-spoken 87-year-old Karen. He had been labeled a terrorist for years by U.S. authorities, solely because he was a teacher in a school set up by a group of armed resisters in the Karen-controlled territory of Burma. Denied entry into the United States, his dream of joining his grandnephews in running a sushi bar in Florida went stale. He has asked that his refugee file be submitted to Australia.

Similarly, Pah Khet (a.k.a. Silver Fox) has been unable to come to the United States. Before the draconian antiterrorist laws kicked in after September 11, his entire family was admitted as refugees. But between 1949 and 1963, Silver Fox fought for the liberation of his people and was therefore lumped together with terrorists by U.S. authorities. But he, too, is far from one. At 77 he is a respected elder, a prominent member of the Tham Hin camp committee. Now, while Silver Fox's family members make their life in Utica, New York, his optimism about joining them has disappeared. His case file is now with Dutch immigration authorities.

Then there is Albert Gray, a Burmese man prohibited from entering the United States because he served in the 1970s as a captain in the Karen armed resistance—and denied the right to disassociate his case from that of his wife and teenage children. As a result, his status as a hero of a past struggle for independence nearly wrecked the life of his entire family. Only his adult daughter has been allowed to go to the United States, and Gray, once convinced that U.S. authorities simply could not be unjust, has tired of waiting. Now he is hopeful Norway will accept him.

Over the last two years I have met hundreds of refugees like these three men. They include Colombians in Ecuador who were forced into guerrilla armies, Eritreans and Sudanese in Ethiopian refugee camps who fought for their homeland, Ethiopians with the Oromo Liberation Front, which was once part of the transitional government in Addis Ababa, but then pulled out and had to flee to Kenya. Every time, incredulous, they ask the same question: "How can we be seen by America as terrorists when we are victims?"

They were all caught by the same overzealous legislation, and for years there was no way of making an exception. Finally, today there is a possibility, at least, of waivers, and the U.S. government must wield this power with all due haste. It may be too late to right the wrongs done to Lincoln, Silver Fox or Albert Gray, but the fates of thousands of other refugees are at stake.