Bringing the Economy Home

Refugee Travel Loans: What They Are, And Why You Should Care

Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

Larry Jones is the Boise Field Office Director for World Relief, one of three agencies that do refugee resettlement in the Boise area.

Tomorrow, we’ll air a broadcast story on a program you’ve probably never heard of.  It’s called the International Organization for Migration U.S. Refugee Travel Loan Program.

What is it?  In short, it covers the cost of transportation for nearly all refugees resettled in the United States.  (For this year, that could be as many as 76,000 people.)

Basically, it’s a revolving loan fund.  The loans are interest-free, and the money comes from the U.S. Department of State.  In FY2011, the State Department contributed $78.35 million for the transportation of refugees.  That money  went to the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental group headquartered in Geneva.

Before refugees come to the U.S., whether they are coming from Iraq, Tanzania, Uzbekistan, they sign a promissory note.  It spells out the refugee or refugee family’s cost of  travel, and requires that monthly payments begin within six months of arrival in the U.S.  The loan amounts vary according to the number of people traveling, and where they’re traveling from.  One loan may be $1,413, another $10,306.

Payment amounts vary accordingly.  Promissory notes dictate that loans be repaid within 42 months of arrival.  That means monthly payments are determined by dividing the total loan amount by 36.  The promissory notes say that if a loan goes unpaid for four or more months or if a refugee doesn’t pay the loan fully within 46 months, the IOM can accelerate payment, and report the refugee to a collection agency.

Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

Before the recession hit, Boise's World Relief office resettled more than 300 refugees annually. In part due to the economic downturn, that number has been cut back. Last year the agency received a total of 166 refugees.

“What of it?” you might ask.  As StateImpact has reported elsewhere, the recession dealt an especially hard blow to Idaho’s refugee population.

Larry Jones is the Boise Field Office Director for a refugee resettlement agency called World Relief.  In a recent interview, he recollected what it was like to try to help refugees establish lives here in Idaho as the recession hit.  “Fewer and fewer people were able to get jobs,” he remembered.

Jones said the lack of jobs meant refugees needed more support.  “We started to see the needs of initial resettlement start to stretch from five or six months to maybe two years before someone got their first job,” he said.  “That’s a long time to be patching together support structures to keep people in their homes.”

Many refugees and refugee advocates say the travel loan program and its threat of bad credit put an imperiled population in an even tougher spot.  They say refugees are not adequately informed that loans can be deferred or waived based on criteria like economic hardship.  They say refugees, many of whom speak little English, don’t know how to navigate that process.  Moreover, they point out, the U.S. is one of the only countries that asks refugees to pay their cost of transport.

To hear our story on how the travel loan program is affecting refugees here in Idaho, listen to 91.5 KBSX News tomorrow during Morning Edition.  The piece will air at 6:50 and 8:50.  If you miss it live, don’t worry.  You’ll also find it archived here, at the StateImpact Idaho blog.


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