WASHINGTON – A delayed refugee crisis in Iraq has left thousands of translators, aides to Americans in Iraq and others fleeing religious persecution and violent reprisal seeking escape to an unwelcoming United States.
Bush administration officials say the government will expand the number of open slots for Iraqi refugees to 20,000 in 2007 if funding is approved. The United States continues to work with international organizations to aid Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries of Jordan and Syria.
But officials admit that the refugee problem they anticipated after the 2003 invasion of Iraq didn't reach full force until this past year when sectarian violence grew and millions were displaced or fled the country.
"At present, more Iraqis are fleeing their homes to other areas of Iraq and to neighboring countries then are returning," said Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, said in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee last month.
Sauerbrey is among several State Department officials named to a new Iraq Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons Task Force to be spearheaded by Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky. The task force will try to coordinate assistance for refugee resettlement, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced Monday.
While the task force aims in part to help Iraqis at risk because of their work with the U.S. government, just 466 Iraqis have been resettled in the United States since the war began in May 2003. Critics say that is the result of a bureaucratic "nightmare" coupled with tough post-Sept. 11 security restrictions that have created a bottleneck.
Democratic senators last month slammed the administration for not coming to the aid of vulnerable Iraqis and leaving them at the mercy of their adversaries.
"We can no longer ignore the plight of millions of people — many of whom have helped our efforts," Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said during the Jan. 16 hearing. "We know that America must respond."
In fiscal year 2005, the United States made available 70,000 slots for refugees worldwide; 53,000 of those slots were filled, but only 202 Iraqis were allowed into the United States. Another 50 Iraqis and Afghans were admitted through a limited Pentagon program for translators who have worked with U.S military.
Sauerbrey estimated nearly 1.4 million Iraqi refugees have fled the country and at least another million have been displaced — either forcibly or voluntarily — within Iraq, mostly since the bombing of the Shia Al Askari Mosque in Samara in February 2006.
Critics say the refugee crisis began long before the mosque bombing. They add that the administration has not acted sooner because it did not want to admit that conditions in Iraq were forcing Iraqis to flee. The scenario hearkens back to the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees allowed into the United States under special refugee status after 1974, they say.
"We have pursued a shameful policy of ignoring the situation, allowing other countries to absorb the vast hordes abandoning their war-torn land while we let in a few every year in numbers so small they're not even a blip on the radar," said Lisa Ramaci-Vincent, whose husband, journalist Steven Vincent, was killed in Iraq by insurgents in August 2005.
Vincent's longtime translator, aide and friend, Nour al-Khal, "bravely stood by him" while both were kidnapped, beaten and held for five hours before they were shot. Khal survived, but U.S. authorities offered him no protection when he was released after three months of interrogation in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, Ramaci-Vincent said in testimony before the Judiciary Committee.
Khal could not go back to her hometown in Basra where the murder occurred because the assassins were still there and her family no longer wanted her for fear of their own safety. She is now living in an undisclosed location outside Iraq and assisted financially by Ramaci-Vincent, who has struggled unsuccessfully to get Khal into the United States.
"Each path I have gone down has proven fruitless," Ramaci-Vincent told the committee. "I have been told that she does not qualify for refugee or asylum status because Iraq is now a democracy, hence there should be no reason she would need to flee."
Walid Phares, a counter-terrorism expert for the Defense of Democracies and FOX News contributor, said giving asylum, particularly to the many contracted translators in Iraq, is complicated because opportunities to abuse the system are rampant.
"According to past years, America absorbed many cases which weren't really about asylum, while real persecuted people who waited behind, were tortured or killed. The whole process has to be reviewed thoroughly," he said.
But refugee aid organizations counter that the United States is sitting on its hands when it could be getting people through the refugee system.
"If the U.S government wants to take action for a refugee community, it can do whatever it wants," said Sarah Petrin, director of government relations for the U.S. Committee for Refugees. She said under normal circumstances, refugees could sit in camps for 10 to 15 years before getting to a host country like the United States.
Kristel Younes, a spokeswoman for Refugees International, added that many Iraqis have been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to earn refugee status while in Iraq, but the U.S embassy is in the heavily fortified Green Zone and even when they can get to it, the staff is ill-equipped to handle applications.
Iraqis have an even harder time earning refugee status in Jordan and Syria, which will not recognize them as such, preventing them from resettling or working legally in those countries.
"Their lives are at risk and they are looking for international protection," said Younes.
Sauerbrey said the United States has provided more than $800 million in assistance since 2003 to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other U.N. and non-governmental agencies that handle services and resettlement of refugees from temporary sanctuaries in Jordan and Syria to "third countries" like the United States.
President Bush had requested $20 million more for humanitarian assistance in fiscal year 2007. That is on track for approval though delayed by the budget backup in Congress. An additional $15 million for refugees was included in the supplemental war funding request submitted to Congress on Monday.
The United States does not now have plans to give special status to the most vulnerable refugees, whom experts say number in the tens of thousands and include Christian Iraqi minorities fleeing from persecution. Special status enables refugees to cut through the bureaucratic slog. Sauerbrey also did not suggest that any of the strict post-Sept. 11 security screening for Iraqis, including those already vetted to work with the U.S. military in Iraq, would be relaxed to speed up the process.
Fred Peterson, national security expert with the U.S Freedom Foundation in Washington, a balanced approach keeps in mind domestic security as well as the goal of ensuring Iraq is a place where people want to stay, not flee.
"Yes, we should expedite — perhaps with a special court — the exit and resettlement of those who have been of exemplary service to us and are as a result in dire danger," Peterson said. "Special care and vetting is, of course, necessary in time of war, but this should not deter swift action where necessary."
James Carafano, national security expert for the Heritage Foundation, said it was unfair to suggest that the White House was in denial.
"They're not stupid, they know he numbers are fleeing out of the country," he said, noting that typically government bureaucracy is "reactive and not proactive." Carafano said that while foresight for such a crisis had not amounted to effective planning, the fault does not lie with the administration. "We kind of missed it. This is not a Bush problem, it goes back to a longstanding problem with how government operates.
"The right answer is the government has to do due diligence," he added, "and they have to protect that imperative while dealing as humanely as possible with refugees as we can."
Aside from refugees, immigration numbers for Iraqis entering the United States are also relatively low. According to statistics, 4,077 obtained legal status last year compared to 84,681 Indians and 69,967 Chinese.