US Doors Cracked to Iraqi Refugees

A full-blown humanitarian disaster looms in Iraq, warns a new report on the refugee crisis there by Amnesty International, and the international community is responding with little more than "global apathy".

The report, "Millions in Flight: The Iraqi Refugee Crisis", released Monday, charges that the international community and particularly countries responsible for the onset of violence in Iraq need to do more to accelerate the resettlement of refugees and lend support to other host countries.

Though no official numbers exist, the current estimate places the number of refugees from Iraq at about 4.2 million. The rate of people being displaced from their homes is about 2,000 a day, or roughly 80 an hour, said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The report comes on the heels of several actions by the U.S. government to try to make a greater effort to alleviate the crisis, including a bipartisan bill in the Senate calling for easier access to refugee status in the United States for Iraqis and appointments of two new officials in both the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

"The international community, especially the United States, has a moral obligation to take on a fair share of the responsibility for protecting and assisting Iraqi refugees," said Larry Cox, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, "Otherwise, an even greater humanitarian crisis and further political instability in the region may emerge."

New immigration restrictions in Syria, though temporarily stayed for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and an impending toughening of Jordanian immigration rules will stymie the arrivals of new refugees to the two central host countries of the migrating masses -- Syria with 1.4 million refugees and Jordan with 500,000 to 750,000 account for about eight percent and 10 percent, respectively, of the countries' populations.

The new laws in Syria will effectively close the border, reported Amnesty delegates who traveled to the region to observe the conditions. They allow for only some skilled workers and a few other exceptions to enter the country, and are designed to alleviate the stress on Damascus to deliver housing, food, employment and services such as education and healthcare.

Though Amnesty called for the borders of Syria and Jordan to remain open to refugees, they were quick to commend the two countries for most of their efforts thus far. There was little praise for the efforts of the international community, particularly the United States.

"While the U.S. authorities have indicated that the USA will accept more Iraqi refugees through resettlement than any other country," the report stated, "the numbers proposed are small compared to the extent of the need and the potential capacity of the USA".

The report noted that the goal set by the U.S. in February was to settle 7,000 Iraqi refugees -- even though the Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey said that the capacity of the U.S. was 25,000. Both numbers were eventually rejected in favour of the more modest figure of 2,000 expected resettlements by the end of the fiscal year, a goal that the government is unlikely to meet with under 1,000 resettlements with the end of the fiscal year fast approaching on Oct. 1.

Terry Rusch, director of the office of admission at the State Departments Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, said that the U.S. will allow 12,000 Iraqi refugees into the country next year because the infrastructure has been built and is ready to swing into action at home as well as in Syria and Jordan.

Refugees International, a refugee advocacy group based in Washington, also criticised the United Nations for its slow reaction to the crisis, blaming deficient funding, inadequate involvement by U.N. agencies other then UNHCR, and insufficient coordination efforts between those various agencies as well as with host governments.

In an attempt to deal with the inadequacies of current U.S. policies, Senators Ted Kennedy, Gordon Smith, Sam Brownback and Joe Lieberman introduced a bill in the Senate that would increase access to refugee status in the U.S. by bolstering State Department staff in Baghdad -- where Iraqis previously had no place to go to make asylum applications -- as well as directing the State Department to make efforts to assist overburdened host countries.

"Regardless of where we stand on the war with Iraq, we are united in our belief that America has a fundamental obligation to assist the Iraqis who have courageously supported our forces and our effort in Iraq and whose lives are in peril as a result," said Kennedy, whose bill would create 5,000 special immigrant visas for Iraqis who are targeted for working with the U.S. -- over 65,000 Iraqis currently work for the Department of Defence or its sub-contractors alone -- by allowing them expedited status towards resettlement through direct asylum applications to the U.S. government instead of seeking refugee status through referral by UNHCR.

The State Department took steps towards dealing with the crisis by naming Ambassador James B. Foley as the senior coordinator for Iraqi Refugee Issues. Foley is a veteran diplomat who will come from the role of international affairs advisor at the National War College and was once the ambassador to Haiti.

The Department of Homeland Security also announced that Lori Scialabba would fill the new role of senior advisor for Iraqi Refugee Affairs. In a statement regarding the appointment, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff attempted to explain the backlog of refugee applications by noting that "we also must be mindful of the security risks associated with admitting refugees from war-torn countries, especially countries infiltrated by large numbers of terrorists".

(c) 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service

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