Darfur refugees will need plenty of help integrating

Last month marked the 30th anniversary of Congress passing the Refugee Act. It's a good time to examine gaps in our refugee policy, especially as we prepare for an influx of refugees from Darfur.

The Refugee Act established a resettlement program for refugees that was designed to integrate them into our society and enable them to reach economic self-sufficiency.

Though we have succeeded in providing individuals fleeing humanitarian crises with a safe haven and resources, a broader range of needs remain unmet -- especially mental health needs.

In 2011, the United States expects to receive approximately 15,000 Darfurian refugees from camps in Chad and Kenya. An even larger contingent -- perhaps an additional 45,000 -- will follow. As a result of the extent and duration of the conflicts in Darfur, these refugees may be the most traumatized the United States has ever resettled.

We should equip these Darfurian refugees with the mental health tools they need. A durable, strategic investment in mental health services at crucial points in the process would improve Darfurian refugees' abilities to integrate and achieve economic independence.

We should target three key points: while the refugees are still in the camps abroad; in the U.S. resettlement cities prior to transfer of the refugees to this country; and following the refugees' arrival.

We should also create a trauma treatment corps. International clinical experts should be deployed to train select groups of refugees as psychosocial counselors -- empowering them to treat their fellow refugees coping with massive trauma.

Resettlement cities and towns should also be better equipped with resources needed to integrate groups of highly traumatized individuals. The peer counselors should move, in advance of the larger groups of refugees, to the resettlement cities. They can serve as translators and bicultural workers to help refugees access health and social services.

We should also engage a broader group of Americans in integration efforts. By tapping advocates passionate about ending the genocide in Darfur and other humanitarian crises and human rights abuses, we can expand the circle of people actively involved in ensuring the successful integration of this traumatized population.

Last, to create a more unified refugee relief policy, the U.S. government must clarify the roles of the web of agencies responsible for managing parts of the program within an overarching strategy of refugee resettlement.

We will have a chance, in the next few months, to respond to the basic needs of tens of thousands of Darfurians -- and in so doing, establish a best-practices framework for other refugees.

By so doing, we can have a lasting impact not only on the lives of refugees and their families, but also on the American cities and towns in which they build their new lives.

Johnson is the executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis. E-mail him at