WASHINGTON – The United States will soon begin admitting a bigger trickle of the more than 2 million refugees who have fled Iraq, acknowledging for the first time the country may never be safe for some who have helped the U.S. there.
After months of agonizing delays and withering criticism from advocacy groups and lawmakers, the Bush administration has finalized new guidelines to screen Iraqi refugees, including those seeking asylum because helping the Americans has put them at huge risk.
The 2 million-plus people — the fastest growing refugee population in the world — have left Iraq, but Washington has balked at allowing them into the United States for security reasons.
Since the war began in 2003, fewer than 800 Iraqi refugees have been admitted, angering critics who argued the United States is obligated to assist many more, particularly those whose work for American agencies or contractors placed them in danger.
Now, under enhanced screening measures aimed at weeding out potential terrorists — announced this week by the Department of Homeland Security — the administration plans to allow nearly 7,000 Iraqis to resettle in the United States by the end of September.
An initial group of 59, including former U.S. government employees and their families, should arrive in the coming weeks, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.
As with incoming refugees from other countries, Iraqis accepted for resettlement in the U.S. will be given assistance from both government and private aid agencies, including language and job training in the communities that will be their new homes, officials said.
"America's tradition of welcoming international refugees and responding to humanitarian emergencies is unrivaled," he said in a statement. "Yet 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."
Homeland Security officials would not discuss what the enhanced process entails, but several people familiar with the program said it includes additional interviews, biometric screening and cross-checks against employer databases, none of which are necessarily required for non-Iraqi refugees.
The 59 Iraqis who will arrive soon are among a group of more than 700 considered to be the most vulnerable and for whom resettlement interviews have already been conducted, the department said.
They include "persons whose lives may be in jeopardy because they worked for coalition forces," it said, without giving specific numbers of former U.S. employees.
Refugee advocates on Wednesday praised the announcement but lamented that many desperate Iraqis have been languishing in camps in other Mideast countries.
"Obviously, DHS has a responsibility to make sure that everybody who comes into the country is going to be a good citizen ... but they also realize that the country has a responsibility to these Iraqis," said Kenneth Bacon of Refugees International.
"My hope is that with this they will begin large-scale resettlement program," he said. "We are very disappointed that there are so few now, but I have hope for the future."
Refugees International is one of several groups that have been pushing the administration to accept at least a fraction of the Iraqis and noted that other countries, including some Scandinavian nations, have agreed to accept tens of thousands.
"It is embarrassing that Sweden is taking more refugees than we are," Bacon said. "The U.S. should be doing much more."
That complaint has been echoed on Capitol Hill where the Senate and House earlier this month passed legislation allowing a tenfold increase in special immigrant visas for Iraqis and Afghans who worked as translators and interpreters for U.S. forces.
"America has a fundamental obligation to help those brave Iraqis who put their lives on the line by working for our government," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who co-sponsored the Senate bill with Richard Lugar, R-Ind.
As of May 18, the United Nations had identified 4,692 Iraqi refugees at camps in Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt for possible resettlement in the United States.
Officials said they expect that number to rise to about 7,000 by Sept. 30 and the U.S. hopes to admit as many as possible.
"We fully intend and expect to be able to handle 7,000 referrals," deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters. "This is very good news that this has now been arranged."
The State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, which deals with refugee resettlement, said communities around the United States have been identified as destinations for the first batch of Iraqis but would not disclose them pending arrival.