U.S. is still slow to admit Iraqi refugees

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 20, 2007 

BAGHDAD — The State Department will fall far short of the 7,000 Iraqi refugees it had said it was prepared to accept by the end of September.

A State Department official told McClatchy Newspapers this week that it plans to interview 4,000 potential Iraqi refugees by then.

The State Department has said that helping Iraqi refugees — particularly those who work with Americans — remains a top priority.

In April, the department approved one Iraqi refugee. It allowed one in May, as well.

This fiscal year, through June, the United States has admitted 133 Iraqi refugees. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Bush administration has allowed about 833 Iraqi refugees into the United States, according to the International Rescue Committee, a network of relief agencies and workers.

That's only a tiny fraction of the roughly 17,000 it admitted from 1992 to 1995, after the Persian Gulf War.

By contrast, Sweden, which hasn't participated in the war, accepted 9,065 Iraqi asylum applications last year, up from 2,330 in 2005. It recently has announced tighter restrictions on refugees.

The underwhelming U.S. numbers have generated criticism at home and abroad that the United States is failing the very people it hoped to liberate when it launched the war more than four years ago.

"U.S. government actions fall well short of its rhetoric concerning a commitment to Iraqi refugees," said Michael Kocher, a deputy vice president at the International Rescue Committee in Washington.

"Those individuals now working for the U.S. — or for Western organizations — inside Iraq face present dangers that will likely only increase within the context of an eventual U.S. troop pull-out," he said. "They should not be abandoned."

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, is scheduled to report to Congress in September on how the American troop increase is going. Often lost in political discussions about the effectiveness of the buildup and increasing calls to withdraw troops is what's to become of tens of thousands of Iraqis seeking asylum.

Although it lacked credible evidence, the Bush administration tied its war in Iraq to the 9-11 terrorist attacks. And it cites 9-11 as the reason it's permitted relatively few Iraqi refugees.

"Events on the ground have dictated the (refugee) problem," a State Department spokeswoman said, speaking on condition of anonymity because she wasn't authorized to be quoted by name. "It's called 9-11. We have to be a lot more careful."

None of the 19 hijackers in the 9-11 attacks was from Iraq.

About 2,000 Iraqis flee their homes each day, according to the United Nations. Many fear sectarian violence; others fear being targeted for working with Westerners. Even talking to U.S. soldiers on street patrols can trigger death threats.

About 2.2 million Iraqi refugees have fled the country since 2003, many spilling into neighboring Syria and Jordan. Another estimated 2 million are what's called "internally displaced": trapped within Iraq's borders. The United Nations doubled its refugee budget this month to $123 million to deal with what it calls a "spiraling" crisis.

Three bills in Congress that could speed Iraqi refugee processing remain stalled.

Abo Hussein works at his family's barbershop in Baghdad. At least that's what he tells friends and neighbors. His real line of work is more dangerous. He's a journalist for a Western news agency.

"I live in an area that is completely controlled by a sectarian (Shiite Muslim) militia," he said. Although he's a Shiite, "They would kill me if they knew anything about my job."

Talk of a U.S. troop withdrawal makes Hussein nervous. He wonders whether he could leave as a refugee. The State Department doesn't know how many Iraqis are seeking refugee status related to working with American interests.

At least 118,000 Iraqis work for U.S.-paid contractors, according to recently released documents.

Hussein said the U.S. and other Western governments and companies had "a moral commitment" to help secure asylum for their Iraqi employees.

He varies his route to work almost daily, being careful to avoid Sunni Muslim checkpoints. When word comes by cell phone or instant message on his Yahoo account that there's trouble in his neighborhood, he spends the night at the office.

"I live," he said, "in continual fear."

(Drummond reports for The Charlotte Observer. Hammoudi is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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