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

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

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

Up to now, this may not have been an impediment. However the USA now requires refugees hoping to reunite with their households to show that they’re associated — both via a DNA take a look at, or with official adoption paperwork, which will be inconceivable to acquire in war-torn international locations. So when Guled’s two organic kids board a aircraft to satisfy their mom and sister in Ohio within the coming months, Roda will seemingly 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 will likely be kidnapped by dangerous folks,” stated Guled via her 16-year-old daughter Awo, who translated by cellphone. “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 means of the late Nineteen Nineties, this system was answerable for 15 to twenty % of all refugee arrivals in America, however due to a sequence of restrictions imposed since then, it at present accounts for lower than 1 %. The modifications have stymied fraud — as they had been meant to. However at a time when the U.S. is bracing for hundreds of recent functions for shelter from refugees displaced by struggle in Syria, the restrictions have slowed — and in some instances outright denied — authentic entries into the nation.


Battle 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 carry over members of the family fleeing disaster.

Within the years earlier than 9/11, as many as 13,000 refugees a yr joined kinfolk within the U.S. via this system, in line with 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, kids and fogeys. In 2004, the Bush administration curbed this system additional. As a substitute of creating this system out there to any immigrant who arrived within the U.S. legally, it would solely be out there to these who had been granted refugee standing or asylum.

However the struggle in Syria, which has displaced greater than 4 million from their properties, is fueling requires the Obama administration to ease a few of these restrictions. The U.S. has introduced plans to take up a minimum of 10,000 Syrian refugees over the subsequent yr, and as soon as they arrive in America, these refugees will be capable to use the P-3 program.

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

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

“These households would have a house prepared for them, a supply of monetary 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 yr — lots of whom went on to use to the household reunification program to carry over kinfolk.

Immigration officers suspected that some had been inventing “ghost kids,” and filling out functions for kids not associated to them. There had even been some studies of brokers who bought the ghost kids’s slots for revenue, in line with 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 % had been genetically associated to each particular person they stated was of their household. One other 39 % examined false for a minimum of one member of the family. Within the remaining 45 % of instances, candidates both refused to take part or didn’t present up for the take a look at.

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, lots of whom had spent years ready for P-3 functions to be authorized. Most had been advised to use for an alternate visa, however it was much more restrictive than P-3 and shortly had a multi-year ready checklist.

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 kids and only one examined false, they’d all be counted as fraudulent. And if any member of the household didn’t present up for a take a look at, that household would even be thought of fraudulent, even when the no-show was for a authentic purpose.


Critics additionally took purpose on the slim “nuclear household” idea that DNA exams impose, famous a report by the  Immigration Coverage Heart, a nonpartisan immigration analysis group. Throughout struggle, kids whose mother and father are lifeless or lacking are normally taken in by kinfolk or neighbors. Official adoption paperwork shouldn’t be the norm.

“It’s utterly 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 had 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 subsequent 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 to carry the kid with them. So they are saying sure. That’s fraud, however it’s not gaming the system.”

There will be issues even when a baby does belong to the mom, famous lawyer Emily Holland in “Transferring the Digital Border to the Mobile Stage,” revealed within the California Regulation Evaluation: DNA exams 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 really helpful that refugee staff affirm relationships with paperwork, interviews and different instruments, and argues that DNA exams 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 exams, or by official adoption papers. Refugees pay for the DNA exams, which may value a number of hundred {dollars}, however are reimbursed for optimistic exams.

Since then, fewer than 100 folks have arrived in the U.S. annually via the household reunification program, whereas a whole bunch of extra openings went unfilled. The State Division official stated it’s doable 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 legislation 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 isn’t any straightforward method to the issue. Even these instances which might be 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 decisions, and when the selection is to order some spots for members of the family, it makes sense to verify they’re actually members of the family,” 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 enable them to discover a method to carry her niece to America. Her different two kids had been residing in Mogadishu with their organic father, however they and Roda have now moved to Ethiopia as a result of it is going to be simpler to affix their household within the U.S. from there. Guled’s two organic kids have handed the DNA take a look at and they are able to fly to Ohio earlier than the tip of the yr.

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 believe my life is simply beginning now, I’m getting a superb 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 stunning life.”

Katie Worth

Katie Price, Former Reporter, FRONTLINE