By William Fisher
This holiday season, thousands of Iraqi refugees are living in limbo in the Middle East.
Iraqi Christians and other religious and sexual minorities, as well as U.S.- affiliated Iraqis are struggling to survive outside Iraq with limited ability to exercise their basic rights, obtain formal employment or access services such as education and heath care, according to a new report from Human Rights First, a research and advocacy organization.
The report charges that “serious reforms are needed in the U.S. resettlement program to remove unnecessarily processing delays which now leave many Iraqis refugees and U.S.-affiliated Iraqis vulnerable and stranded in difficult and sometimes dangerous situations.”
The report is entitled, “Living in Limbo: Iraqi Refugees and U.S. Resettlement.” Its lead author is Jesse Bernstein.
As violence and instability persist in Iraq, resettlement to other countries – including the United States – remains the only effective path for many of these refugees. These include “those who have faced persecution in Iraq because of their work with the United States, to find safety, dignity and a new home for their families,” the report says.
It adds that, while the United States has stepped up its response to Iraqi displacement over the last few years, “Lengthy delays in U.S. processing leave Iraqis slated for U.S. resettlement languishing for months – even years – in countries where they have limited opportunities to support their families and some – particularly those within Iraq – face life-threatening circumstances,” said HRF’s Bernstein.
“These persisting processing delays, including delays in processing background clearances, continue to undermine the effectiveness of the programs created by Congress – in bi-partisan legislation – to ensure that U.S.-affiliated Iraqis are brought to safety in a timely manner,” he said.
Despite the ongoing U.S. troop drawdown and its shift to a civilian-led operation in Iraq, Iraqis continue to face persecution and violence, circumstances that cause them to flee to different regions of Iraq or to seek refuge in countries such as Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, the report says.
“This serious situation requires continued high level engagement from the United States and international community. In 2010 alone, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) registered just over 31,000 Iraqi refugees. In October of this year, there were 3,000 new registrations alone in Syria and Jordan. Over 195,000 Iraqi refugees are registered with UNHCR in the region, although additional refugees are not registered,” HRF reports.
The report documents that in its interviews with Iraqis in the region, including religious minorities such as Iraqi Christians and U.S.-affiliated Iraqis, “not one had hopes of returning to Iraq, and some experienced direct violence while waiting to be resettled to the United States.”
In one case, the report recounts, the son of an Iraqi translator who worked for the United States military waited 21 months in Baghdad for his resettlement approval. During his wait, he was shot due to his father’s U.S. affiliation and he received additional threats while waiting for his U.S. security check process to be completed. He finally arrived in the United States in November 2010. In another example, a child fell ill and died while awaiting security processing and his young siblings and mother were jailed by Turkish authorities because they had overstayed their visas.
The report explains that, “in recent years, the United States has played a leadership role in providing humanitarian assistance to Iraqi refugees and displaced persons. It has also contributed significantly to UNHCR’s Iraqi protection operations.”
But at the same time, the Departments of State and Homeland Security continue to struggle to overcome persistent problems that undermine the timeliness of U.S. resettlement efforts, including delays in the processing of inter-agency security clearances.
It notes that former US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker complained about the “bottlenecks” in security clearance processing over three years ago.
HRF’s report, based on independent research and interviews with Iraqi refugees as well as government officials and UN staff, recommends a series of reforms to address the concerns raised in the report.
The US, it says, should ensure timely and effective processing of resettlement and visa applications for Iraqi refugees, U.S.-affiliated Iraqis and other refugees – specifically:
• Reduce unnecessary delays in the security clearance process. The National Security Council should, together with the Departments of State, Justice, Homeland Security and intelligence agencies, improve the inter-agency security clearance procedure to enable security checks for refugees and U.S.-affiliated Iraqis to be completed accurately and without unnecessary delays within a set time period;
• Develop and implement an emergency resettlement procedure for refugees facing imminent danger. The Department of State should continue to work with other relevant federal agencies to develop and implement a formal and transparent resettlement procedure for refugees who face emergency or urgent circumstances;
• Remove other impediments that continue to delay the applications of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis. The Department of State, working with other agencies, should – in addition to addressing delays in security processing – continue to take other steps to eliminate case backlogs and address inefficiencies in the current SIV visa processing procedures;
• Provide information necessary for refugees to submit meaningful Requests for Reconsideration. The Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services should implement reforms to improve the fairness and effectiveness of the resettlement process, including by revising the current Notice of Ineligibility for Resettlement to provide case-specific factual and legal reasons for denial.
“By addressing the persistent delays in processing, the Obama administration will strengthen the effectiveness of the U.S. resettlement program and recommit itself to the protection of refugees,” Bernstein concluded.
US efforts to relocate Iraqi refugees have had a checkered history.
Since 2003, more than 35,000 Iraqi refugees have resettled in the U.S. The U.S. was slow to admit the refugees until Senator Kennedy initiated legislation to facilitate the process. The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, which passed in 2008, directs the Secretary of State to establish processing facilities in Iraq and countries in the region for eligible Iraqis to apply and interview for U.S. admission as refugees or as special immigrants.
In 2009, after years of delay and bureaucratic red tape, refugees from the Iraq War were finally allowed into the United States. But there is ample evidence that America opened its gates to refugees and then simply forgot about them after they arrived.
In the process, the United States was in danger of failing to meet its legal obligations to extend protection to the most vulnerable refugees, promote their long-term self-sufficiency, and support their integration.
These are among the key findings of a study carried out by a team of students at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. The students, members of Georgetown Human Rights Action, conducted the study in partnership with the Law Center’s Human Rights Institute. They interviewed Iraqi refugees in Jordan and in two cities in the U.S., Washington, D.C. and Detroit.
Their report says, “Across the United States, many resettled Iraqi refugees are wondering how, after fleeing persecution at home to seek refuge in (Jordan) a country that barely tolerated them, they have found themselves in ‘the land of opportunity’ with little hope of achieving a secure and decent life.”
It charges that recently resettled Iraqi refugees “face odds so heavily stacked against them that most end up jobless, some even homeless” and cites the experience of one Iraqi widow who lives with her three young children in a shelter.
“I left Iraq to find security,” the refugee says. “But what kind of security is it to live in a homeless shelter?”
The report applauds the advocates who “worked tirelessly to encourage the U.S. government to accept Iraqis who were forced to flee a war initiated by the United States,” but notes that “few have studied what happens to those refugees after they arrive here.”
Acknowledging that resettlement is one of three “durable solutions” for refugees, the report says there has been “scarce focus on just how durable the U.S. resettlement system actually is.”
It says that the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) “is unique in giving new life and opportunity to millions of refugees, accepting many times more than the rest of the world combined.” But it cautions that as these new refugees from Iraq arrive in increasing numbers, and “as the U.S. economy continues to offer little prospect for those seeking work, there is an urgent need to diagnose the ills of refugee resettlement before they become incurable.”
The project sought to determine the extent to which Iraqi refugees have been afforded protection and a durable solution through the USRAP. Throughout their report, “long-term self-sufficiency” and “long-term integration” are the terms used to describe both the goal of the USRAP and the standard against which it is measured.
The report says, “If the United States is to meet its own aims and serve as a guarantor of security for those it welcomes to its shores, it is imperative that U.S. policies be based on respect for these legal norms.”
The report recommends that refugee resettlement should be decoupled from U.S. anti-poverty programs and tailored to the unique needs and experiences of refugees.
It suggests that refugee assistance be increased from eight to eighteen months, and programs designed to promote the long-term self-sufficiency and integration of refugees should be better funded.
Stronger emphasis should be placed on the core barriers to self-sufficiency and integration, including lack of English language skills, lack of transportation, and lack of opportunities for education and recertification.
It also recommends that funding for employment and social services should be tailored to estimates of incoming refugee arrivals and secondary migration, as well as the unique needs of these particular groups. Funding should not be based on the number of past refugee arrivals.
Finally, the report says, “All actors within the USRAP must improve planning and information sharing capabilities. Planning should anticipate and prepare for the unique needs of each refugee group prior to arrival. In order to tailor services for refugees, actors must take into account important information on refugees collected in the resettlement process, such as health status and professional background.”
The United Nations estimates that there are currently 4.7 million Iraqi external and internal refugees. Until 2007, the numbers admitted to the U.S. were in the low hundreds. Then, under pressure from advocacy groups and increased reporting on the plight of Iraqi refugees, the U.S. began resettling more Iraqis. In the fall of
2007, Congress passed the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, providing admission for Iraqis that worked for the U.S. or its contractors in Iraq, and allowing in-country processing for at-risk Iraqis.
In 2008, the United States appointed two Senior Coordinators for Iraqi Refugees, one at the Department of State (DOS) and one at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to strengthen the American humanitarian commitment to refugees with a particular emphasis on resettlement. In FY 2008, the U.S. resettled 13,822 Iraqi refugees. As of August 31, 2009, the U.S. had resettled 16,965, totaling approximately 33,000 since the start of the 2003 war.