US Eases Immigration Rules for Burmese Refugees


The Bush administration has authorized a
waiver of immigration rules to allow the resettlement in the United
States of several thousand Burmese refugees of the Karen ethnic group,
now housed in Thailand. The decision came amid reports of a new exodus
of refugees after renewed fighting between Burmese forces and Karen

The decision confirmed by the State Department could mean a new life
in the United States for several thousand Karen refugees who have
languished, in some case for years, in an encampment in Thailand near
the Burmese border.

Until a decision by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Wednesday to
invoke a special waver of resettlement rules, the refugees had been
barred from coming to the United States because of their support for
the Karen National Union (KNU), a rebel group fighting the Burmese

The Karen refugees had been snagged by a provision of the
anti-terrorist U.S. Patriot Act and a related law barring entry to
anyone providing material support to a terrorist or armed rebel group.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said
as many as 9,300 Karen refugees at the Tham Hin camp in Thailand could
be affected by the decision, but that actual combatants or members of
the Karen National Union would not be eligible:

“This waiver is not a guarantee that individuals might be resettled
in the United States, but merely something that allows the Department
of Homeland Security to consider them as potentially eligible, even
though they might be considered under the law to have provided what is
referred to as material support, which is the term under the law,” he

The waiver granted by Secretary Rice is narrowly focused and does
not apply to other Karen refugees in the region, or refugees of other
nationalities whose bids to enter the United States have been blocked
by the same technicalities.

Refugee advocate groups, including Refugees International, have
welcomed the U.S. waiver as a breakthrough, albeit a limited one.

News reports say several thousand more Karen refugees have fled
Burma for Thailand in recent weeks after renewed fighting between
forces of the Burmese military junta and the rebels.

The Karen have been fighting the Rangoon government for decades in a
quest for autonomy and the new fighting came despite a truce accord
reached two years ago.

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch said Wednesday the U.N.
Security Council should urgently respond to the Burmese military drive,
which it said has displaced more than 10,000 villagers since November.

Human Rights Watch said Burmese civilians seeking refuge in Thailand
have been put at grave risk by landmines planted by the Burmese army
along the border.

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