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Why Minnesota’s Karen community is fighting to reopen the federal government’s resettlement program

A protest planned for the Minnesota Capitol Friday is part of an ongoing effort to shine a light on the economic, education and immigration challenges Karen refugees face in Minnesota. 

Morrison Johnny: “We want the government to open applications so our people can come to the U.S. They need to reunite with their families in the U.S. as soon as possible.”
Karen Organization of Minnesota

Years after the United States closed the resettlement program for Karen refugees, community leaders still fight to reopen the process.

Morrison Johnny considers himself lucky that he managed to escape brutal treatment at the hands of a military junta in Burma two decades ago. But he’s worried about his two brothers and their children — that they might never make it out of the country safely.

That’s because, in 2014, the U.S. government ended the resettlement program that had managed to bring thousands of Karen refugees, including Johnny, to Minnesota since in the early 2000s. At the time, observers in Burma, also known as Myanmar, saw what appears to be relative stability and positive developments for the Karen people, a collection of ethic minority groups that have a long history of conflict with the rulers of the country.

Yet Johnny and others in the Karen community in Minnesota say that conditions in the region have never really improved for millions of ethnic and religious minority individuals in Burma. So they’re trying to do something about it.

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To raise awareness and pressure elected officials to find a way to reopen the resettlement program, members of the community are planning to hold a rally at the State Capitol on Friday. The gathering is part of an ongoing effort by Karen leaders to shine a light on the economic, education and immigration challenges they face in Minnesota.  

“We want the government to open applications so our people can come to the U.S.,” Johnny said. “They need to reunite with their families in the U.S. as soon as possible.”

Safe to return home?

It’s not uncommon for the U.S. government to end resettlement programs for refugees from certain countries. It mostly happens when the feds determine that circumstances have improved for those who would be eligible for the program.

That improvement could mean a couple of things: a civil war ends or an oppressive regime is no longer in power, and its citizens no longer face persecution based on their religion, ethnicity or political views.

For the Karen people — who have been fighting for autonomy for decades — the U.S. government opened the resettlement program during the early 2000s after gruesome images of violence perpetrated against Karen people became public.

Since then, according to a report by the United Nations, more than 70,000 Karen refugees have been resettled in the U.S. through the resettlement program. More than 10,000 ended up in Minnesota — making the state home to the largest Karen community in the nation.

In 2014, the U.S. government decided to end the program after the Burmese government signed a cease-fire agreement with leaders of Karen rebels, ending the armed conflict between the two groups.

But many Karen in Minnesota argue that just because politicians signed an agreement, it doesn’t mean that hundreds of thousands of Karen refugees in Thai camps feel safe enough to return home. 

“There are still wars happening in the regions where Karen people live,” he added. “Just recently, more than 270,000 Karen families had to flee from parts in Burma because of increased conflicts in the area.”

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That’s the reason Johnny’s two brothers and their children — among more than 150,000 other Karen refugees — still remain in camps in Thailand, where they have lived for decades now, hoping that they’ll one day be reunited with family members in Minnesota.  

Keeping families together

Though the U.S. government ended the resettlement program for Karen refugees in 2014, said Micaela Schuneman, director of refugee services at the International Institute of Minnesota, Keren people in Minnesota were still allowed to file family applications for family reunification until October 2016. 

For the past two years, though, no applications have been processed for eligible Karen refugees who wish to establish a new life in the U.S. The only people who are being resettled in the U.S. at the moment are those who were accepted to the program before it ended.

“The people that I’ve talked to about this were surprised to hear that the U.S. government no longer recognizes the need to resettle refugees from Myanmar,” Schuneman said. “They feel like the peace agreement is tenuous.” 

That’s one reason people like Johnny want to see the resettlement program reopened. Beyond that, there’s another reason they think the program should be reopened: It will help families reunite with loved ones in Minnesota.

“The Burmese military separated our families before we came here,” he added. “Now, our families are separated again. That’s really tough.”