Rescuing refugees fleeing homelands rent by war, natural disaster, and repression is a lofty American tradition - one that since 1980 has given more than 3 million of the world's most vulnerable immigrants passage to a new life.

Delivered from teeming camps, they land in the United States with few possessions, meager job skills, and problems with English. They also arrive with the little-known obligation to repay Washington for their airfare.

In the land of the free, they are instant debtors.

Depending on the size of the family and how far the plane traveled, the bill can exceed $10,000, a sum beyond what many refugees would make in a lifetime back home.

They must begin reimbursing the federal government after five months, and pay in full within 42 months. They are warned that credit bureaus are kept apprised of their punctuality, or lack of it.

"Our goal is not to care for them in . . . perpetual victimhood," said David Robinson, acting assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, which oversees the program. Loans tell them "it's not a one-way street."

Refugee advocates, who give orientations on financial literacy even before the displaced leave the camps, agree the program teaches a critical lesson in responsible borrowing. But criticism has mounted that it also imposes too heavy a burden on families already weighed down by multiple disadvantages.

So the State Department is planning the first significant changes to the Travel Loan Program in its 32-year history. Beginning in October, those owing the most money will see their monthly payments capped according to a formula still under review.

The change will make the program "more equitable," Robinson said. "In some cases, individually, the burden may [have been] too high."

Of the 28 nations that take in refugees, the United States accepts the vast majority - 57,000 out of a total of about 80,000 last year, from more than 60 countries. But only the United States and Canada require repayment. Canada charges interest; America does not.

The federal government paid nearly $43 million in airfares last year, and so far has collected $1.7 million.

Data released to The Inquirer last week by the International Organization for Migration, the intergovernmental group that dispenses the travel money, show that almost half the loans since 2002 - 45 percent - were not repaid during the prescribed 42 months. About 25 percent, or one in four families, is delinquent by 180 days or more.

"We don't want anybody to fall into [delinquency]," Robinson said, "but we know people do."

A nightmarish turn

The January blaze that destroyed the South Philadelphia apartment of San Dar Htwe took everything - the life of her husband, Kyaw, and the health of her child. Her 4-year-old daughter, Eint, was so badly burned she spent a month at St. Christopher's Hospital, where doctors performed skin grafts on her hands.

It was a nightmarish turn to what Htwe (pronounced "Tway") thought was a fresh start.

Like thousands of her countrymen from Burma, she fled the violence and repression of its military government for the security of a bamboo-hut camp in Thailand. There, in 2008, Eint was born, and, about a year later, after the family passed the medical and background checks of U.N. refugee screeners, they were picked for resettlement in America.

The Nationalities Service Center, a Philadelphia nonprofit, took care of Hwte's family, finding a rowhouse apartment for them on Wharton Street.

Htwe worked nights as a meat packer; Kyaw worked days packing vegetables. Together, they grossed less than $650 a week. As legally admitted refugees, they were eligible for food stamps.

"The sad truth is we resettle refugees into poverty. They are working poor," said Juliane Ramic, the service center's director of social services. "And they have the travel loan on top of that."

After the fire, Ramic and her staff helped organize the family's bills. The growing stack included monthly notices of Htwe's travel debt to the federal government: $2,436.

The service center's first call was to the Virginia nonprofit assigned to collect Htwe's monthly payment of $67. Given the tragic fire, which was ruled accidental, could the husband's airfare debt be forgiven? Could the wife and child get separate relief?

The answer was no, Ramic said. The loan was more than $1,100 in arrears, her staff was told; it would have to be brought current if Kyaw's portion was to be written off.

"They said that was all they could do," Ramic said, "because the circumstances . . . didn't qualify for a reduction in monthly payments, or loan forgiveness" for Htwe and her child.

"She had no place to live, her daughter was in the hospital, she lost her [minimum-wage] job," Ramic said. "We didn't feel that what they offered was very good."

Kyaw's death left Htwe with another big bill - $4,000 for his funeral. Though cremation would have been more affordable, her Buddhist beliefs dictated burial rather than burning after a death by fire, she said. So an established member of the local Burmese community put it on a credit card, and Htwe agreed to repay her.

The service center continued pleading Htwe's case with the loan collector, which eventually forgave Kyaw's portion of the debt without requiring back payments. Htwe got a deferral for herself and Eint. A year from now, she must resume installments.

Lest she forget the importance of that obligation, the bold-faced, uppercase notice on her bill states it plainly: "Payments are due by 10th of each month." The collections department "reports regularly to credit bureaus."

'A burden from the start'

The first beneficiaries of refugee resettlement in America were Europeans, displaced by the chaos of World War II. Next came emigres from communist regimes, then hundreds of thousands of Indochinese after the wars in Vietnam.

With the Refugee Act of 1980, Congress formalized resettlement services.

Charging refugees for their transportation meant the program would have money to use for the next wave of displaced people. The pot shrinks automatically because the 10 nongovernmental agencies that collect the loans keep 25 percent for operating costs.

The travel-loan program's administrators say it bends over backward to work out repayment plans and never seeks liens for failure to pay. About $14 million - three percent of the total outlay since 2002 - was forgiven because of a death in the family, disability, or other hardship.

Nonetheless, they say they have heard the complaints and the sad stories, and are responding.

One critic is Gregory Oliveri, a Nepali-speaking translator in Philadelphia, who has helped resettle Bhutanese refugees. "The [loan] policy creates a burden from the start," he said. "Resettlement is hard enough without starting in debt."

But it isn't impossible, said Eskinder Negash, director of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.

He came to America three decades ago as a refugee from Eritrea. In a recent interview, he recalled making payments on his $300 travel loan while earning $3.35 an hour making umbrellas.

"I know this process. I paid my loan," he said. "When you have someone coming from a situation where they have never had exposure to a bank or a Western financial system, it is difficult . . . but they are expected to pay."

Contact Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.