US turns to UN to screen refugees from Central America

2016-01-14 05:30
John Kerry (AP)

John Kerry (AP)

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Washington - The Obama administration is planning to expand a programme to let would-be migrants from Central America apply for refugee status before they attempt to come to the US, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees will now conduct initial screenings to see whether migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala may qualify as refugees eligible to come to the United States legally.

"I am pleased to announce plans to expand the US Refugee Admissions Programme to help vulnerable families and individuals from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and offer them a safe and legal alternative to the dangerous journey many are currently tempted to begin, making them easy prey for human smugglers who have no interest but their own profits," Kerry said in a speech at the National Defence University.

In December 2014, the US began offering refugee status to children in those countries who have parents already living legally in the United States. So far thousands of children have applied for the programme, but very few have been approved to come to the US.

The latest effort is aimed at expanding that programme by moving applicants, both families and single individuals, into safe zones to await processing.

Refugee processing for Central Americans was launched as part of a broader effort to curb the unprecedented surge of families and children travelling alone caught at the Mexican border in recent years.

During the 2014 budget year more than 67 000 children were apprehended, along with more than 68 000 people travelling as families. The majority of immigrants in both groups were from Central America.

Rise in numbers

The flow of Central American children and families declined during the 2015 budget year, but border agents have noted significant rise in the numbers of immigrants from both groups in recent months. Since October, more than 16 000 children travelling alone and more than 20 800 people travelling as families have been caught.

The Obama administration has been trying for nearly two years to curb the flow of migrants from Central America, using a variety of public relations campaigns to warn would-be migrants that crossing the border illegally would not entitle them to stay in the United States. Until now the government had stopped short of calling such immigrants refugees.

Annually the US admits about 70 000 refugees from around the world. President Barack Obama has called for relocating about 10 000 Syrian refugees in the US this year.

The refugee programme has come under fire from lawmakers who worry that that there are gaps in the security vetting process, though the focus of their concerns has been primarily on refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has even called for a temporary ban on Muslim refugees being admitted to the United States.

Kerry said on Wednesday that security is a top priority for the programme.

"Let me be very, very clear. We can both maintain the highest security standards and live up to our best traditions as Americans by welcoming those in need of help to our great country," Kerry said. "That is who we are. That is what we do."

Read more on:    donald trump  |  john kerry  |  barack obama  |  us  |  migrants  |  us 2016 elections

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