Displaced and Unwelcome

The Iraqi refugee crisis threatens Middle East stability and sullies America's image abroad.

The United States is known as the the land of the free. But for Iraqis who've risked everything to help U.S. troops and diplomats advance American interests in their bloodied country and now find themselves targets of sectarian militias or insurgents, it takes more than bravery to win asylum and call America home. It takes a lot of patience.

Before Iraqis can even apply for asylum in the United States, they must first leave Iraq. That's because the State and Homeland Security departments don't process refugee applications in Iraq. So Iraqis "who have experienced or fear serious harm in Iraq must make the difficult decision about whether to remain in Iraq," in the words of a State Department fact sheet, or attempt to join more than 2 million of their compatriots in crowded and dangerous refugee camps abroad. Only then do they have any hope-and that hope is exceedingly slim-of gaining admittance to the United States.

To many U.S. allies and a growing number of lawmakers, the slow pace and limited number of Iraqis being admitted to the United States is disgraceful. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 60,000 Iraqis are displaced every month because of violence there; more than 1.4 million have fled to Syria and another 750,000 to Jordan while another 2 million are uprooted within Iraq. As of Oct. 1, the United States had accepted fewer than 1,700 Iraqi asylum seekers. State and Homeland Security have attributed the small number to the fact that the agencies had to create facilities and procedures from scratch for processing refugees now encamped in Syria and Jordan. Additionally, Syria has refused to grant visas to Homeland Security personnel, making it difficult for the agency to vet asylum seekers there.

Says Florida Congressman Alcee Hastings: "It's shameful that we have that huge embassy in Iraq, and we are not processing people there." Hastings, chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, says the refugee camps that have sprung up along Iraq's borders with Syria and Jordan are "heart-rending." He is urging State and Homeland Security to process asylum applications in Iraq so U.S. personnel there could more easily testify on behalf of Iraqis who have served U.S. interests, thereby expediting and strengthening the security vetting process.

"Whether you agree or disagree with U.S. policy on Iraq, it is clear this humanitarian crisis cannot be ignored," he says. In late September, Hastings introduced legislation that would substantially increase U.S. aid to countries that have taken in Iraqi refugees, primarily Syria and Jordan, and dramatically increase the number of Iraqis granted asylum in the United States. Under Hastings' legislation, State and Homeland Security would be directed to open the doors to as many as 20,000 Iraqis a year for the next several years, and those who have worked directly in support of U.S. operations in Iraq would receive special consideration and expedited processing.

"Unconscionable delays have often prevented Iraqis from reaching safety," Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., told the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in September. Smith is part of a bipartisan group of senators who pushed through legislation in late September that would expedite the asylum process and grant special status to Iraqis who have served the U.S. government. The full Senate approved the measure in an amendment to the Defense authorization bill.

Once Iraqis reach Jordan, Syria and other neighboring countries, "a fresh purgatory awaits them," Smith said. They must wait months to be registered as refugees, and then another six to eight months to be designated for resettlement, after which they'll need several more months to navigate the U.S. asylum application process.

After the collapse of South Vietnam, the United States absorbed 135,000 Vietnamese refugees, Smith said. "In comparison, between 2003 and mid-2007, fewer than 800 Iraqis were admitted to the United States."

Iraqis now represent almost 10 percent of the populations in Syria and Jordan, says Judy Cheng-Hopkins, assistant high commissioner for operations at the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. In the Syrian capital of Damascus, one out of every four residents is an Iraqi refugee.

"What is the impact of this kind of influx?. . . A significant increase in the price of basic commodities, inflation obviously. Power supplies in certain parts of Damascus have been unable to cope with demand. Schools are overcrowded, and medical and health care facilities are exhausted. Prostitution among women and girls has increased. Health problems have been exacerbated by lack of access to adequate care. Trauma, anxiety and other mental health problems are widespread," she says.

In response to growing criticism, the secretaries of State and Homeland Security in September appointed senior advisers to better coordinate the vetting process for applicants. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff tapped Lori Scialabba to become his special senior adviser for Iraqi refugee affairs, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that James B. Foley would become senior coordinator for Iraqi refugee issues.

Scialabba is a career civil servant and immigration lawyer who most recently was associate director of refugee, asylum and international operations at DHS' Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau; Foley is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service and a former ambassador to Haiti. Neither could be reached for comment on this story, and it's not clear how they might address the crisis or streamline the asylum process.

Iraqis began to flee in large numbers in the spring of 2006, following the February bombing of the Samarra mosque. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the assistant secretary of State who heads the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, told the commission: "As public disorder increased, so did the number of Iraqis fleeing their homes."

Sauerbrey said she was particularly alarmed on a trip last spring to Syria, Jordan and Egypt to find that so many Iraqi children in those countries were not attending school: "This was, obviously, a looming disaster for the future of Iraq; this is the next generation. And it's a disaster, potential disaster, for the countries having large numbers of children out of school, where they are hosting [Iraqis]."

In 2007, Sauerbrey said, the United States made available nearly $200 million to international aid organizations to help Iraqi refugees, both inside and outside the country. The money included:

  • $37 million to the UNHCR special Iraqi appeal to register about 165,000 refugees and provide protection, food and other assistance to about 100,000 of those, as well as to aid displaced people within Iraq, many of whom are Palestinian refugees.
  • $39 million for Jordan and Syria to expand their school systems.
  • $19 million to 10 nongovernmental organizations that are providing health care, education and emergency humanitarian assistance to displaced Iraqis in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
  • $10 million to Jordan to reinforce ongoing health and education programs in communities that have experienced an influx of Iraqi refugees. Not everyone is impressed by the spending. "In comparison, the United States gave Jordan $700 million in 2003 to offset the cost of the Iraqi war. The United States is spending $9 billion per month overall on the Iraq war," said Smith. "Surely there is some additional funding available for men, women and children who are most affected by the violence in Iraq."

"Resettlement is our option of last resort; it's the course that we take when it's unlikely that a refugee will be able, ever, to return home safely," Sauerbrey said. "Our top priority is, and has to be, a peaceful Iraq in which citizens of all religions and ethnicities can live together, free of sectarian violence and terrorism."

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