Earlier this month, President Obama announced the annual refugee allocations—80,000 total for Fiscal Year 2011, the same total as in 2010. However, while the total yearly allocation is the same, African refugees are being underrepresented. The 2011 ceiling for African refugees is 15,000, which is slightly lower than in 2010 and nearly 25 percent lower than the average for the previous decade (2000-2010). In reality, the number of African refugees actually admitted has fallen considerably below the ceilings due to processing problems. Why? New data documenting the underrepresentation of refugees from Africa in the U.S. looks at allegations of fraudulent African family reunification applications, DNA testing programs, and its implications for U.S. refugee and immigration policy.

The World Refugee Survey 2009 reports that there are more than 13 million refugees worldwide. The largest number of refugees (approximately 6.3 million) is found in the Middle East and North Africa. In Syria, for example, there are approximately 1.7 million refugees from Iraq, Former Palestine, Somalia, and other countries. In Africa there are approximately 2.7 million refugees. Kenya alone has more than 350,000 refugees from at least 9 countries.

Many of the African refugees that have come to the U.S. have come through the refugee family reunification program, known as the Priority 3 (P3) program. This program allows the close family members of refugees already resettled in the U.S. to be admitted to the U.S. Of the 36,000 P3 admissions between 2003 and 2008, 95% were from Africa.

However, the P3 program was suspended in 2008 due to allegations of fraud. The program relied on attestations of relationship from family members, and there were concerns that many applicants purporting to be blood relatives were not, in fact, related. A DNA testing pilot project to test DNA samples of P3 applicants was initiated in several African countries. Refugees were asked at their interviews (with no forewarning) to provide a DNA sample. Large levels of fraud were reported. However, counted in the fraudulent cases were people who refused to submit DNA. In cases where one family member’s family relationship was not as claimed, the entire family would be coded as fraudulent.

While some of the reported fraud was actual fraud, in some cases cultural differences played a role. In many African cultures the understanding of family is much more expansive than in the U.S. It is well documented that “fostering of children by non-parental kin is prevalent.” In some countries the tradition is that, if a parent dies, the father’s brother or mother’s sister substitutes as the parent. Children are taken in by grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other clan members in cases of death, divorce, needed care (for the child), or labor. The term “child” can be used to refer to nieces and nephews, “father” to refer to an uncle, and “mother” to refer to an aunt. In many African countries there is also a lack of legal adoption systems to formalize adoptive relationships, either for relative-adoptions or for children taken in by village or clan members as a result of conflicts in which many parents are killed.

In September of 2010, the State Department published proposed rules that would change its procedures for processing P3 applicants, including mandatory DNA testing to prove claimed family relationships. The prospect of mandatory DNA testing is of concern to refugees themselves, refugee resettlement agencies, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and other human rights advocates. Moreover, the implementation of DNA testing in the refugee context may portend required DNA testing in other areas of immigration admissions.

When the United States once again begins to allow relatives of refugees to enter the country through the P3 program, DNA testing will be required. All the details are not entirely clear at this point. DNA testing brings up questions of cost, privacy, discrimination, and delays, in addition to the definition of family relationship and cultural differences. Strict rules regarding the use of DNA testing are necessary.

Photo by Gravitywave.