WASHINGTON - Despite a marked increase in the number of Iraqi refugees admitted into the United States, experts on Iraq and human rights and refugee organisations are calling on Washington to open the door wider amid fears that returning home remains dangerous for many displaced Iraqis.
The U.S. government has met its target of admitting 12,000 Iraqi refugees for the 2008 fiscal year, which ended on Sep. 30, and promises to admit more than 17,000 for the next year, in addition to 5,000 under a special visa programme.
Approximately 1.5 million Iraqi refuges live in Syria, Jordan and other neighbouring countries. Ninety thousand of them are seeking resettlement in the U.S., according to U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Groups that advocate on behalf of refugees have praised the increased numbers of Iraqi refugees being resettled in the U.S. But considering the vast number that are seeking resettlement, the groups say the U.S. is still not doing enough.
"The U.S. certainly met its goal for this year, but next year's target of resettling 17,000 Iraqi refugees falls far short of what is needed," said Kristele Younes of Refugees International.
"We commend the U.S. government for meeting its target of resettling 12,000 Iraqi refugees in 2008. It represents a significant achievement," said Bob Carey, the International Rescue Committee's (IRC) vice president of refugee resettlement programmes.
"But that number was much too low to begin with," he added. "Now that systems are in place to process greater numbers of vulnerable Iraqi civilians, an increase of only 5,000 next year seems particularly meagre."
Many refugee and rights groups have noted a special responsibility for caring for displaced persons because the U.S. led the war that gave rise to the crisis.
Earlier in September, the U.S. State Department held a briefing on developments in the Iraqi Refugee Admissions and Assistance Programmes where it announced that the U.S. had crossed the threshold of 12,000 admitted refugees.
"I think you'll see the U.S. government admitting, over the course of fiscal 2009, tens of thousands of Iraqis into the United States," said Ambassador James Foley, who was appointed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the post of Special Coordinator for Iraqi Refugee Issues in 2007.
Experts on the Iraqi refugee crisis and human rights organisations have concerns about returning refugees to their homes in Iraq.
In an interview with IPS, Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert and the author of "The Modern History of Iraq", discussed the pros and cons that Iraqi families face when returning. "It's much safer -- there is no doubt about that. It's calmed down and security seems much better," said Marr.
But she also cautioned that these families could encounter difficulties when returning to Iraq. Some families find their homes have been occupied by others, and there are few job opportunities, she said.
Michael Kocher, who oversees IRC's international aid programmes, noted potentially even more serious consequences for returning refugees.
"For many Iraqi civilians, going home would be a death sentence," he said. "The reality is that all but a tiny fraction of uprooted Iraqis are staying put because they know their neighbourhoods are still violent, not safe, and lack basic services. To encourage and lure returns at this stage is irresponsible."
With U.S. elections coming up in November and a new president taking office in January, IRC issued a statement urging that the next U.S. administration recognise the special obligation to help vulnerable Iraqis, and vastly increase humanitarian aid in the region and for resettlement.
The IRC statement also called for pressure on the Iraqi government and others to adequately address the refugee crisis and set a global standard for granting sanctuary to more Iraqi refugees -- especially when they are imperilled and have exhausted other options.
The State Department was also critical of the Iraqi government for not doing enough for its refugees.
"The Iraqi government's unwillingness thus far to significantly share the international burden of assisting refugees would become more understandable if it were undertaking a serious and credible effort to prepare for large-scale returns," Foley said at the September press briefing.
In a recent statement, Refugees International alleged that the government of Iraq, despite a massive budget from increasing oil revenues, has been "ignoring the welfare of four million displaced Iraqis" by refusing to grant the requested funding to an Iraqi parliamentary committee on displacement and migration -- the third such rejected request this year.
Iraq's budget will be nearly 80 billion dollars, of which the committee has requested 4 billion dollars.
"There is no excuse for the government of Iraq's poor response to the displacement of Iraqis," said Younes in the statement. "...[T]he government has the resources to help people who have been uprooted from their homes."
"To stabilise Iraq, their needs must be met in the places they live now," she said.
Refugees International argues that Iraq is still dangerous for returning families. Despite the drop in violence over the past two years, the statement noted that "the situation is far from stable and many people's homes are damaged or occupied by militants or other families."
Returning to these locations, said Younes, could lead to further displacement.
"Most refugees believe they might never be able to go home, as they have been directly threatened and their homes are occupied," she said. "Instead of pressuring displaced civilians to return to danger and chaos, it is time for the government of Iraq to assist them in their areas of asylum."