Global Policy Forum

Few Iraqi Refugees Allowed into US


By Barbara Slavin

USA Today
April 30, 2007

The United States admitted 68 Iraqi refugees in the six months through March, a tiny percentage of those fleeing their homes because of the war, State Department figures show. The United States has been unable to accept more Iraqis in part because of the time needed for background checks, which have become more stringent since 9/11, Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of State, told USA TODAY.

About 50,000 Iraqis leave their country every month, and 2 million have fled Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, according to the United Nations. Most have settled in neighboring Syria and Jordan. The influx has stretched health care and other social services there.

At a conference this month, the U.N. called the Iraqi refugee crisis the most serious in the Middle East since the displacement of Palestinians following the creation of Israel in 1948, and it urged other countries around the world to share the burden. Yet, from October through March, the United States gave refuge to far more Somalis, Iranians, Burmese and Cubans than Iraqis, according to the State Department.

Washington should be making a greater effort to take in Iraqi refugees, said Kristele Younes of Refugees International, a non-profit organization. She said the United States has a "responsibility toward all Iraqi civilians who have been forced from their homes because of a war the United States started."

Sauerbrey said that, after Saddam Hussein was deposed, Washington had focused on resettling Iraqis who were returning to their country. That left the U.S. government and the U.N. ill-prepared when an explosion of sectarian violence in Iraq last summer triggered a major exodus, she said. At a conference on refugees in Geneva last week, Sauerbrey said the United States expects to receive 7,000 Iraqi refugee referrals from the U.N. this year.

The United Nations has registered more than 100,000 Iraqi refugees and seeks long-term resettlement for 20,000 this year throughout the world, says Ron Redmond, the chief spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The agency often vets applications for refugee status and then asks other countries to take them in.

The U.S. government may not have enough personnel to process refugees, said David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank. "But it's clear that the administration is not making a serious effort to do so because this undercuts the message they want to get out: that security in Iraq is improving," Mack said.

Under U.S. and international law, refugees have special status as people who can show a "well-founded fear of persecution" if they return home. The United States admitted 450,000 non-refugee immigrants from October 2005 to September 2006, of whom 1,255 were Iraqis, according to the most recent figures available from the State Department.

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