Refugees at U.S. Embassy Left in Limbo

The United States last week officially reopened the entry gates to refugees for the first time since September — but for those awaiting the final go-ahead from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, any celebrations proved premature.

Thousands of applicants remain in limbo due to the continued closure of the embassy's Immigration and Naturalization Services section.

The INS and Consular Services sections, which had been housed in the old embassy building fronting the Garden Ring, were suspended on Oct. 11 after the building was evacuated for security reasons. Since then, both have been temporarily relocated. While the consular section has resumed many of its services, including interviews, the INS section has only resumed processing nonrefugee applications and petitions. All refugee applications that had gained initial approval but not yet received interviews by INS officials have been put on hold.

"The processing of refugee applications has been suspended until additional interview space becomes available," said an embassy spokesman. "The INS plans to resume processing refugee applications in early February."

According to diplomatic estimates, in former Soviet states there are between 400 and 500 foreign refugees, including 100 in Russia, who are waiting to be interviewed by INS officials in Moscow.

Most are said to have fled from Afghanistan or to have come from Africa to study in the late 1980s and early 1990s. An official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said these applicants are all in the most vulnerable category, as their lives are threatened if they return to their home countries. Some are single mothers with many children; others are in urgent need of medical care. Because they lack legal documentation, they are denied access to basic services: They are unable to work legally, be admitted to hospitals or send their children to schools.

Also waiting are thousands who have applied for relocation to the United States under a refugee program for people in former Soviet countries who are considered to share characteristics that identify them as targets of persecution, including ex-Soviet Jews, evangelical Christians and religious activists.

"We're receiving hundreds of calls from refugees and their family members here in the United States who are anxious to know when they can expect movement," says Leonard Glackman, president and CEO of The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a migration and refugee-resettlement agency in New York. "It's been very hard for them. We're assuring them that the program will resume and not alter the number of applicants it accepts. But for now that's cold comfort."

For months, even those who had already been granted refugee status were stuck here. The refugee-resettlement program was suspended due to a security review that U.S. President George W. Bush called for after the Sept. 11 attacks and because of reauthorization delays in Congress. The program got the green light again on Nov. 21.

Although the United States last week began granting entry to refugees, progress will be slow due to both the backlog and new security procedures.

"We're advising small capacity levels at the ports of entry so they're not burdensome," a U.S. State Department official said in a telephone interview. "Everyone who arrives will be eyeballed at the airport and fingerprinted."