Sidelined State Department official returns to refugee post

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A senior U.S. State Department official who had been sidelined last year from his post leading the refugee admissions program has returned to his former position, the department said on Monday.

Lawrence Bartlett, who had been the head of refugee admissions, was given a series of temporary re-assignments unrelated to refugee issues starting late last year. Advocates for refugees feared the decision was part of the Trump administration’s drive to limit refugee resettlement.

“As of Nov. 19, Larry Bartlett, who was on a detail with U.S. Embassy Ankara and the State Department’s Syria Transition Assistance Response Team (START), has returned to his position as Director of the Office of Admissions in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration,” a department spokeswoman said in a statement.

In addition to the post in Turkey, Bartlett had also been assigned at one point to the State Department office that handles requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act. Current and former U.S. officials said it was unusual to send a civil servant of his experience and rank to that office.

The circumstances of Bartlett’s return to his refugee post were not immediately clear. The State Department spokeswoman declined to respond to questions on why he had been removed and why he is returning. Bartlett did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Democrats in Congress had asked the State Department’s Inspector General in January to investigate personnel practices.

State Department Inspector General spokeswoman Sarah Breen did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Bartlett’s return and whether the Inspector General’s office played a role. In September, Breen answered a question about Bartlett’s re-assignment saying the agency was reviewing “allegations of political retaliation against Department of State employees.”

Since taking office in January 2017, President Donald Trump has slashed the number of refugees allowed into the country, paused the refugee program entirely for four months, instituted stricter vetting requirements, and reduced the number of officials conducting refugee interviews.

The administration has said the changes were necessary to protect the United States from potential security threats.

Refugee advocates view Bartlett as a strong and effective defender of the resettlement program within the Trump administration, and were concerned that he would be permanently replaced by a political appointee with far less experience.

Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by David Gregorio