FORT WAYNE – Fort Wayne might see a larger influx of Burmese refugees this year than in any year since 2009.
The U.S. State Department says that Catholic Charities of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese has been approved to resettle as many as 170 refugees here during the fiscal year that began in October. That would be the highest number since 297 arrived in calendar year 2009. Only 54 came to town in calendar year 2012.
The figure is on the rise because family-reunification refugees have been reinstated for fiscal 2013. U.S. authorities suspended those Burmese resettlements in 2008 after a rash of fraudulent applications, but authorities have begun requiring DNA tests for applicants who claim to have immediate family in America.
“Most of the Burmese who are coming to this community are coming because of family,” said Holly Chaille, director of Catherine Kasper Place, a local ministry that assists immigrants and refugees.
Other refugee categories include ethnic minorities and individuals needing protection. Allen County was home to about 3,900 Burmese in the 2010 census. Only four U.S. metropolitan areas counted more Burmese at the time.
This year’s increase in the refugee cap runs counter to media reports out of Southeast Asia. Two news organizations – the Irrawaddy and the Karen News – reported in recent days that the U.S. plans to end its Burmese refugee resettlement program in June. The information was attributed to a State Department official who spoke Friday at the Mae Lae refugee camp in Thailand.
But the State Department said Wednesday that the reports were inaccurate.
“Certainly the Burmese resettlement program is not being shut down,” a State Department official said Wednesday in a telephone interview. The official was not authorized to use her name when discussing refugee resettlements.
The official said Burmese housed in Thai refugee camps and eligible for ethnic-minority resettlement to the U.S. are being asked to submit their applications this year. The deadline at the Mae Lae camp is June 5; there will be “rolling deadlines” for other camps, the official said.
“We are going to continue providing assistance to people living in the camps until some sort of durable solutions for them can be found,” she said.
The Asian media reports came “as much surprise” to Fort Wayne’s Burmese community, said Nyein Chan, a Burmese resident and resettlement services director for Catholic Charities.
“Some people worry about a family member and ask about them,” he said. “I tell them the family reunification will continue.”
According to a report prepared last year by the State, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services departments, the U.S. will accept 17,000 refugees from East Asia in fiscal 2013, “with Burmese composing the vast majority.” The United States was to admit as many as 15,000 Burmese refugees in fiscal 2012.
About 140,000 Burmese reportedly live in refugee camps in Thailand, thanks to decades of repressive military rule in neighboring Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Gradual democratic reforms in Myanmar are expected to lure many expatriates back home eventually.