WASHINGTON – U.S. admissions of Iraqi refugees are nose-diving despite a pledge to boost them to roughly 1,000 per month, according to State Department statistics obtained by The Associated Press.
For the third straight month since the United States said it would improve processing and resettle 12,000 Iraqis by the end of the current budget year on Sept. 30., the number admitted has actually slid, the figures show.
The steady decline — from 450 in October to 362 in November and 245 in December — means the Bush administration will have to allow in 10,943 Iraqis over the next nine months, or roughly 1,215 per month, to meet the target it has set for itself.
But that goal will be difficult to meet and there are few precedents for such large influxes since hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese refugees were resettled here after the Vietnam War ended in 1975.
In the past five years, with few exceptions, notably Somalia and Liberia, the United States has never been able to admit more than 1,000 refugees per month from any country, according to an AP review of statistics from the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.
Iraqi refugees are subject to more security checks than those from almost all other nations and the most Iraqis ever admitted to the U.S. in a single month since 2003 was 889 this past September.
The administration has come under heavy criticism from advocacy groups and lawmakers for its poor performance on admitting Iraqi refugees who have fled violence since the 2003 U.S. invasion. Many critics say, and Bush aides have acknowledged, that the administration has a moral obligation to Iraqi refugees.
In response, it vowed to fix the problems that include bickering between the State Department, which is in charge of refugee resettlement, and the Homeland Security Department, which must screen would-be Iraqi admittees, and a lack of cooperation from countries, notably Syria, where many of the estimated 2 million Iraqi refugees are seeking shelter.
Two senior officials from the agencies were appointed in September to remedy the bureaucratic slowdowns, but four months later there has yet to be significant improvement, although the number allowed in so far in fiscal 2008 — now 1,057 — is nearing the total for the entire previous fiscal year of 1,608.
That fiscal 2007 figure was nearly 400 short of a modest annual goal of 2,000 and a big reduction from an initial target of 7,000.
U.S. officials have conceded that the figures remained low but insisted that improvements in processing, along with new cooperation from Syrian authorities, would lead to substantial jumps in the admissions figures from Iraq starting in the spring.
Yet, refugee advocates said Wednesday they are extremely disappointed that the administration's initiatives have yet to produce results, particularly as conditions for Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and other neighboring countries worsen.
"This is quite a shocking result," said Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International. "We keep hearing they are bolstering the program, but the figures keep going down. The next months are going to be make-or-break for the program."
He said that persistent recent declines in admissions might be the result of the U.S. winter holiday season, which may have reduced the number of interviewers dispatched to screen refugees in the region, but Bacon stressed that the process should not be dependent on the vacations of American officials.
"That may reflect some of the slowness, but it doesn't mean the needs are becoming increasingly urgent during our holidays," Bacon said. "We're in a new year and without major holidays for the next few months, they ought to be able to ramp these numbers up. The problem is they keep promising and not delivering."
In addition to appealing for action to immediately boost U.S. admissions, Refugees International and 17 other advocacy groups have urged President Bush to use his trip to the Middle East that begins next week to press leaders there for financial assistance to ease the plight of Iraqis who have fled their homes.
"This displacement crisis has grave humanitarian implications as well as potential negative ramifications for regional security," they said in a letter to Bush sent on New Year's Eve. "At a time when you have expressed optimism about the prospect of regional dialogue as a way forward to an era of peace and prosperity, it is vital that your administration engage proactively to deal with the impacts of Iraqi displacement."
"We believe that it is imperative that you use this visit to the region to highlight the importance of a robust international response to the humanitarian needs of displaced Iraqis," they said.
According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 2 million Iraqis have fled their country. Of these, 1.2 million are in Syria, 750,000 in Jordan, 100,000 in Egypt, 54,000 in Iran, 40,000 in Lebanon, 10,000 in Turkey and 200,000 in various Persian Gulf countries.
The U.N. refugee agency has referred more than 14,000 Iraqis to the United States for resettlement.