As families continue to endure separation after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, a less visible group of refugees has been abandoned by the Trump Administration with little recourse and dimming hope. In early 2018, approximately 100 Iranian refugees were denied resettlement to the U.S., stranding them in Vienna, Austria, where they had been awaiting final approvals through the U.S. Resettlement Program for over a year. Their denial was made “as a matter of discretion.” They have exhausted their savings and now have no clear path forward. President Trump’s policies have made these refugees’ already precarious lives even more so.
I spent two months in Vienna in 2016 to learn more about this resettlement program. As religious minorities in Iran, these refugees simply sought freedom from the quotidian forms of discrimination that they had endured for years, such as workplace harassment, beatings from peers at school, denial of entrance to universities, and imprisonment, all because of their religious beliefs. Despite the uncertainty of what lay ahead in the U.S., these refugees left everything behind in order to seek a life free from oppression.
Iranian religious minorities are eligible to apply for U.S. resettlement through the Lautenberg Amendment. Congress passed the Lautenberg Amendment in 1989 so that religious minorities in the Soviet Union had a clear path for resettlement to the U.S. and expanded it in 2004 to include religious minorities in Iran. Since then, more than 25,000 Iranians who are Armenian Christian, Jewish, Mandaean, Baha’i, and Zoroastrian have been resettled in the U.S. and have gained newfound religious freedom as a result.
In order to apply for the program, eligible Iranians must first file a lengthy resettlement application from Iran and undergo a U.S. government review process that can last years. Only those applicants who successfully pass this initial stage can travel to Vienna for final processing coordinated by HIAS. The denial rate for the refugees who make it to Vienna is extremely low by design in order to avoid precisely the situation in which these 100 refugees find themselves.
A Long and Costly Wait
Previously, applicants would spend between two and six months in Vienna, during which they would undergo medical screenings, official interviews, additional background checks, and cultural orientation. Without authorization to work or attend school, they passed their days hoping to receive news of their resettlement. Applicants must fund their travel from Iran to Vienna and their living expenses once they arrive. To put this in perspective, one refugee estimated that after five months in Vienna his family of four had already spent $15,000.
In 2016, even under the most favorable conditions of a well-functioning program, many of these refugees told me about the stress caused by watching their savings dwindle in this expensive European city. Because they did not know whether their case’s processing would take two or six months, each rent payment was made in a vacuum of uncertainty. As difficult as the uncertainty in Vienna may have been for prior applicants, the situation has grown markedly worse. For the unlucky refugees who had already traveled to Vienna since President Trump took office, their stay has now surpassed one year. These refugees have been bankrupted.
For example, one family of four has endured a difficult separation. When the parents were approved for resettlement with their younger child, they had little choice but to leave Vienna for the U.S. without their older son whose case was still pending. Refusing to leave Vienna without their son would have put the entire family’s resettlement in jeopardy. Unfortunately, their son received devastating news several months after his family’s departure. His case was among those denied, stranding him in Vienna without his family.
The 100 Iranians in question applied for resettlement during the Obama Administration, unaware that the terms of the program would be changed after they had sought the protection of the U.S. government and after they had signaled to the Iranian government their intentions to flee. They had no way of knowing that President Trump would fail to maintain the parameters of the program that had provided a safe haven to so many before them. It should be noted that while the approval of Iranians in Vienna has all but ceased in fiscal year 2018, Lautenberg applicants from Ukraine, who have applied in larger numbers since the conflict with Russia began in 2014, have not experienced the same challenges. The difference in treatment is demonstrated in the graph below. In fact, Ukrainians are the fourth largest group resettled to the U.S. in fiscal year 2018 so far. This stark and unexplained discrepancy between Iranian and Ukrainian Lautenberg applicants raises questions about de facto strategies of refugee selection under the Trump Administration.
Though the International Refugee Assistance Project is challenging the rejected cases in court, the Iranians still in Vienna are stuck in legal limbo. The Austrian Government had agreed to host the program with the understanding that refugees would leave Vienna in six months and would not apply for asylum in Austria. Furthermore, they cannot apply for asylum in other European countries without first returning to Iran, which would put them in even more danger than when they left. Trying to resume life in Iran is the riskiest of options. By returning to Iran, these refugees would face heightened government scrutiny and harassment as well as even greater barriers to employment and education, leaving few prospects for the future.
Despite reauthorization in March 2018, the Lautenberg Program has also stalled for applicants still in Iran, as Austria stopped issuing the necessary transit visas.
For more than a decade, this program has served as a lifeline for Iranians who sought freedom from the daily burdens of religious discrimination. The en masse denial of these refugees is unprecedented, and there has been no public explanation for the change in policy. The U.S. Administration has made these refugees increasingly vulnerable and their options more limited.
Molly Fee is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at UCLA. Her research focuses on refugee resettlement in the U.S. In 2016, she spent two months in Vienna, Austria conducting interviews with Iranian religious minorities applying for resettlement to the U.S.