Jewish Group Urging U.S. to Admit 25,000 Refugees from Yugoslav Area

The American Jewish Committee has urged President Bush to declare an emergency and resettle at least 25,000 additional refugees from the war-torn former republics of Yugoslavia.

“As Jews, we feel we are reliving a nightmare” with the situation in Bosnia- Herzegovina, AJCommittee President Alfred Moses and David Singer, the group’s executive vice president, wrote in a letter to Bush sent Tuesday.

“As a community dedicated to preserving the memory and lessons of the Holocaust, we cannot remain silent while a portion of Europe again descends into massive displacement, detention and killing of targeted ethnic or religious groups,” they wrote.

The AJCommittee letter is the latest action in a campaign being waged throughout the organized Jewish community to press the United States to take tougher measures against Serbian atrocities and to provide humanitarian aid to the victims.

Perhaps the most dramatic action was the evacuation last weekend by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee of 350 Jewish, Moslem, Serbian and Croatian refugees from Sarajevo.

Bosnia’s ambassador to the United Nations wrote a letter last week to The New York Times, not yet published, in which he praised the Jewish community’s response to the crisis.

Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey said many Jewish organizations had been “at the forefront in breaking the silence” with “calls for more resolute action.”

Sacirbey wrote the letter in response to a Nov. 9 New York Times column by Flora Lewis that proclaimed world Jewry had a “special responsibility” to respond. He said the American Jewish community has “met this special responsibility” in Bosnia.

The Bush administration has offered to resettle about 300 people detained in camps and their families, or roughly 1,000 refugees, a number Moses and Harris called “clearly inadequate.” There are an estimated 3 million refugees.

But the AJCommittee call comes at a time when the federal budget is under severe strain.

Jewish and other advocates for refugees had to battle for last month’s congressional appropriation for the resettlement of the 122,000 refugees authorized to be admitted during the 1993 fiscal year. They had sought at least last year’s funding, which was $410 million, but received only $381 million.

Only 1,500 of the 122,000 slots worldwide are for refugees from Eastern Europe, a drop from the 2,900 spaces allotted last year, according to the State Department. (That does not include refugees from the former Soviet Union, about 60,000 of whom were admitted to the United States last year.)

Gary Rubin, AJCommittee’s national affairs director, estimated it would cost between $150 million and $200 million to admit and resettle the 25,000 refugees from the former Yugoslav republics. “In the case of a true emergency, which this is, it is not a hell of a lot of money,” he said.

An official with the State Department, which is responsible for setting annual refugee ceilings after consultation with the Congress, said she had no idea where the money for the AJCommittee proposal would come from.

But she defended the U.S. humanitarian aid response to the crisis, pointing out that $121 million has gone to refugees within the former Yugoslavia. “With 3 million refugees, the most important thing is to take care of them and to keep them alive,” she said.

“Bureaucracies are hard to move,” said Rubin. “That’s why we wrote to the president and not the State Department.”

“We start with the proposition that people are dying in a way that is particularly abhorrent to Jews and in which Jews should take the lead,” said Rubin.

“A meaningful response is needed. You can’t tell me there’s not money for this somewhere in somebody’s budget.”

Today’s U.S. economy is not as bad as it was in the 1930s, when Jewish refugees were turned away, said Rubin. He called that a “moral mistake” that should not be repeated.

To invoke the emergency provisions of the Refugee Act, the president would have to ask Congress for a special appropriation. The provisions were invoked in 1989, said Rubin, to allow more Jews to emigrate from the former Soviet Union once the gates opened.

Rubin said he had consulted with Jewish and Christian relief agencies, which agreed to back the AJCommittee request. He said the next step would be to mobilize a coalition of these groups to lobby for the emergency declaration.

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