By William Fisher
As the government's fiscal year came to an end last week, the Bush Administration had resettled only slightly more than 10 per cent of the 7,000 Iraqi refugees it pledged to help - and an even tinier fraction of the estimated two million men, women and children who have fled to Jordan, Syria and other neighboring countries or the additional two million who have been internally displaced by ethnic and religious violence within their own country.
According to the US State Department, less than a thousand Iraqi refugees were given US asylum in FY 2007. In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last September, Ellen Sauerbrey, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, said the US would arrange US visas for 7,000 Iraqi refugees by September 30. She later revised the goal downward to 2,000.
Those seeking US visas include thousands of Iraqis who worked for the US Government as translators, drivers, cleaners, cooks, and a variety of other occupations. Many of these people live under death threats because of their support for the US-led coalition. The US Department of Labor has recorded the deaths of more than 250 translators alone.
Many experts familiar with this issue attribute the resettlement program's poor performance principally to the failure of the Bush Administration to assign it a higher priority, to bureaucratic inefficiencies, and to fear by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that some of the Iraqi refugees seeking admission to the US may be terrorists.
Eleanor Acer, Director of the Refugee Protection Program for Human Rights First, a legal advocacy organization, told Truthout the number of Iraqis admitted to the US during the past year is "embarrassingly low."
She said, "Given the size and scale of this refugee crisis, and the US's role in Iraq, this country has a moral obligation to step forward and lead efforts to address the plight of Iraqi refugees. The US needs to step up its aid to assist those states that are hosting the overwhelming majority of Iraqi refugees, but it also needs to demonstrate a real commitment to share the responsibility for providing refuge to Iraqis who are at risk."
The two largest destinations for Iraqi refugees -- Jordan and Syria --are currently hosting more than 500,000 and 1.5 million respectively. On a per capita population basis, Sweden has taken in more refugees than the US.
According to Acer, the US announced goal of resettling only 12,000 next year "is signaling that it will provide shelter to a only a tiny - token - number of those in need."
Currently, the DHS has only a handful of interviewers in Jordan and Syria. In a blunt cable to US to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice - leaked to The Washington Post last month -- Ambassador Ryan Crocker called on State and DHS to "at least" double the number of officers to interview asylum seekers who have already fled Iraq for neighboring countries.
But the subject was barely mentioned during the recent Congressional testimonies of Crocker and Gen. David H. Petraeus on the state of the Iraq War.
According to Secretary Sauerbrey's Senate testimony, "It is clear that the (resettlement) program has felt the impact of post September 11 expansions in the scope of terrorism-related inadmissibility provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). As a result, the Departments of State, Homeland Security and Justice have been engaged in efforts to exercise the inapplicability provision contained in the INA. This means that these amendments do not apply to refugee applications of individuals who pose no security threat to the United States and who we would otherwise wish to approve."
According to Acer, the US "should be able to allocate more officers to do these interviews in a more timely manner. Also there are steps that they can and should take to conduct the security checks in a more timely manner - and if the checks are being delayed because of lack of resources, then more resources are needed."
Acer adds, "The DHS has a desire to ensure that no one who is a security threat gets into the US. That is a critical objective, and everyone agrees with it. But that does not explain why they are not sending MANY MORE officers to Jordan to conduct refugee interviews."
Another major roadblock in the resettlement program is the policy prohibiting asylum-seekers from being interviewed in Iraq before they have been forced to flee to other countries. On this issue, Acer asserts that "It critical for the US to set up a process for interviewing applicants in Iraq. Iraqis who have risked their lives for the US should not be forced to further risk their lives by taking the dangerous trip to leave the country - and given the fact that they may not be allowed to cross the border into Jordan and soon to Syria, they will really have no options."
In her Congressional testimony, Assistant Secretary Sauerbrey said the State Department wishes it could allow as many as 20,000 Iraqis to seek asylum here. Yet she admitted that the difficulty of setting up asylum application centers in Iraq might make it impossible.
The State Department, however, has generally defended its performance. US Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky says "foreign policy pundits" unfairly accuse the Bush Administration of indifference to the plight of Iraqi refugees. Dobriansky says, "We have finalized security protocols enabling us to expedite the resettlement of Iraqi refugees in the US," adding that "progress has been made." Ms. Dobriansky points out that the US has funded 30% of the $60 million United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) $60 million Iraq appeal this year. While that totals only $18 million -- up from the $400,000 the US spent to support UN refugee resettlement efforts in 2006 -- Dobriansky says the US "intends" to provide $100 million more.
But there is also ample evidence that bureaucratic roadblocks are in part responsible for the program's lack of progress. For example, Crocker's cable to Rice suggested what he called "real alternatives," such as allowing State Department officers to conduct interviews, arranging DHS interviews by video from Washington or allowing Iraqis who work for the US Embassy to go through the process in Iraq, instead of outside the country.
But in a letter to Crocker the following day, Emilio T. Gonzalez, director of DHS's US Citizenship and Immigration Services, wrote that the ambassador's cable "does not reflect an accurate picture" of his department's commitment or performance to date."
Gonzalez disputed many of Crocker's points and blamed the State Department, which has overall responsibility for the US refugee program, and its partner agents, called Overseas Processing Entities. They handle initial security screening, medical examinations, sponsorships and orientation for applicants.
"It is the OPE's capacity to prescreen the Iraqi cases . . . that has been driving the pace of the Iraqi program," Gonzalez wrote. "I can assure you categorically that USCIS has sent refugee officers to conduct every interview requested" by State.
In May the DHS said it was "poised to approve the applications of nearly 60 Iraqis," and that it was adding new screening procedures for Iraqis to "supplement the checks conducted for all refugee applicants."
But the Wall Street Journal's (WSJ) editorial page disagrees with the government's claims of progress. It wrote:
"How many Iraqi refugees did the U.S. resettle in 2006? It settled 202. The State Department said it would resettle 7,000 this fiscal year. Halfway through, it has admitted 68. Meanwhile, the U.S. is spending $2 billion per week to wage the war that directly or indirectly has caused four million Iraqis to be forced from their homes. Whether the U.S. resettles 70 or 7,000, it amounts to a drop in the ocean of Iraqi refugees. Iraq's neighbors are inundated and they need meaningful international support to keep their borders open."
The WJS concluded, "it seems a bit tacky for the US undersecretary of state to tout this as an example of American largesse."
Iraqi refugees have placed substantial strains on the economies of Jordan and Syria. Those who have settled in these countries are not allowed to work and are surviving on savings and black market labor. Their children are not allowed to attend school and there is no provision for health care to displaced families.
While Iraq's neighboring countries have generally been cooperative in accepting the large numbers of refugees, the State Department has reported that Syria is now dragging its feet on issuing entry visas to additional DHS interviewers. That claim could not be verified.
Although Jordan was once the refuge of choice for many middle class professionals, in January 2007 Jordan closed its borders to virtually all Iraqi refugees. In recent months, Lebanon has also tightened restrictions on Iraqi refugees and detained and deported some Iraqis. While neither state has signed the 1951 Refugee Convention or its Protocol, under customary international law, all nations are obligated to refrain from returning refugees to persecution.
The international community also bears some responsibility for the plight of Iraqi refugees, according to a spokesperson for Amnesty International USA. Mary Shaw told Truthout the international community "is failing to adequately address Iraq's growing refugee crisis. Jordan, Syria and other destination sites for Iraqi refugees "lack adequate assistance from other states. Amnesty International calls on other states to do more to assist Syria and Jordan by providing increased financial, logistical, and material support to enable them to meet the needs of the Iraqi refugees, and by accepting more refugees for resettlement."
Meanwhile, some in Congress are seeking a legislative fix. Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Gordon Smith (R-OR) have introduced a bill that would provide safe haven to those Iraqis who are at risk because of their work with the United States or with US organizations.
The bill would create a new resettlement category for Iraqi refugees of special humanitarian concern; establish a special immigrant visa for Iraqis who worked directly with the US; require refugee processing in Iraq and in the region; appoint special coordinators for Iraqi refugees; and encourage assistance to countries in the region that host large numbers of Iraqi refugees.
The Iraq refugee numbers stand in sharp contrast to those from the Vietnam era. In 1975, the US airlifted 6,000 Vietnamese out of the country, the first in a series of actions addressing the refugee crisis. A year later, President Carter allowed the resettlement of 14,000 Vietnamese each month. In 1979, the Orderly Departure Program was established. It brought 500,000 Vietnamese into the US. By the program's end in 1994, 250,000 families had been reunited.
The refugees were airlifted out to relocation camps in the US. Then, after undergoing security checks, they were matched by the State Department with US churches, families and civic groups. "To do less," President Ford later recalled of his effort, "would have added moral shame to humiliation."