U.S. accused of ignoring crisis for 4.5 million displaced Iraqis

CAIRO, Egypt — The U.S. government is "unforgivably slow" in resettling Iraqi refugees and has failed to coordinate with its Arab allies to address the suffering of an estimated 4.5 million displaced Iraqis, according to a report released Tuesday by a leading Washington-based refugee advocacy group.

Nearly five years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration has made little effort to speed up relief for a population that's growing more vulnerable by the day, Refugees International concluded after its most recent trip to Iraqi refugee communities in the Middle East. The group's advocates said the White House appeared oblivious to the magnitude of the war's humanitarian disaster.

"The first reason for this is the lack of political will," said Kristele Younes, a co-author of the Refugees International report. "Until very recently, the Bush administration never even acknowledged the humanitarian crisis because they were concerned that it would be interpreted as acknowledging failure in Iraq. And President Bush still has yet to acknowledge that there are now almost 5 million Iraqis who've had to leave their homes."

The report is critical of the United States' inability to make good on its resettlement promises. Despite talk of allowing 7,000 Iraqi refugees into the U.S. this year, only 1,608 had been admitted by the end of September and another 450 entered in October.

By comparison, the U.S. government has resettled nearly three times that many Iranians this year — 5,481 — even though refugees from Iran share the same stories of religious and political persecution as their Iraqi neighbors, Younes said. Arguments that Iraqi refugees could pose a security risk also would apply to Iranians, she added. All refugees admitted to the United States for resettlement undergo security screenings.

State Department officials said the interviewing and resettling of Iraqi refugees had been hampered by the need to set up refugee operations in countries where the United States had none, such as Syria, as well as stringent post-9/11 security measures at the Department of Homeland Security. The officials also said the Bush administration never pledged to resettle 7,000 Iraqi refugees in the 2007 fiscal year. That figure represented the number of refugees to be referred to U.S. authorities for potential resettlement, they said.

"While the situation was not good for quite a period of time, that has been arrested and is turning in a positive direction," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council. He said the Syrians had presented a major obstacle by refusing to allow U.S. interviewers into the country to help process Iraqi refugee cases.

On a trip to Jordan this week, where about 1 million Iraqis have sought refuge, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff described the resettlement process as "efficient, quick, but thorough."

"We're proud of our record and we plan to build on it," DHS spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said. "At the same time, we must guard against the possibility that hiding among the refugees are people who are neither refugees nor Iraqis, for that matter. Security as well as sanctuary has to drive our refugee policy."

With just one Cairo-based coordinator handling cases for 15 countries, the U.S. lacks the human resources to keep up with the thousands of referrals that continue to pile up from the United Nations' refugee agency, according to Refugees International. Officials at the Arab League, which represents 22 nations, said Americans had never approached them about Iraqi refugees.

Countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt — all close American allies — receive little or no assistance from the U.S. and have begun refusing to admit Iraqis, arresting those who overstay their visas and pressuring all but the wealthiest to return to their chaotic homeland, according to the report. Refugees International said American political and diplomatic support for Arab host countries "remains conspicuously absent."

Meanwhile, the report continues, the U.S. is reluctant to recognize that its longtime foe Syria stands alone in its open-door policy for Iraqis. Even that escape route is in jeopardy now, with Syria overwhelmed by some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees. Syria briefly closed its borders last month at the request of the Iraqi government, but is once again admitting Iraqis on three-month visas.

The lives of displaced Iraqis are extremely tenuous. In most Arab countries, they aren't allowed to work, attend public schools or have access to public health care. They're dogged by a reputation of being more affluent than other Arabs, though even those who fled with money are struggling to make their savings last.

Samir Sadeq Mahmoud, a 40-year-old Sunni Muslim, left Baghdad with his wife and four children a year ago, when Shiite Muslim militias seized control of their neighborhood. The family settled in Cairo and has scrimped by ever since.

Mahmoud said they used to receive some cash and medical assistance from a local charity, but he calculated that the money spent on taxis to the office on the other side of town nearly matched what they received in aid. They no longer make the trek, and Mahmoud said the family was days away from being penniless.

"None of my children go to school because I can't afford it," Mahmoud said. "I don't even have enough money to feed them."

Khaled Ezzat, a middle-aged man who worked as a driver for a U.S. television network's Baghdad office, left Iraq last year after each of his three sons received a death threat that mentioned his job with Americans.

The family went to Syria, but left after a short time because they'd heard of better job opportunities in Egypt. Instead, Ezzat said, they plunged into an even more hostile and expensive environment than the one in Damascus.

"It was a big mistake to leave Syria. A big mistake," Ezzat said. "Everything in Syria was better: better people, better government, weather, food, schools. Egyptians think all Iraqis coming here are pulling an oil well behind them. Every day, I discuss going back with other Iraqis, but there's no money."

(David Lightman, Warren P. Strobel and Marisa Taylor in Washington and McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Miret el Naggar in Cairo contributed to this article.)