Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"Iraqi Volunteers, Iraqi Refugees: What is America's Obligation?"

I went to a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia hearing yesterday concerning the plight of the millions of displaced Iraqis, both within and outside Iraq. The panelists testimonies covered a number of topics: personal stories of Iraqi civilians who have aided the U.S. and therefore are facing extreme danger; the millions of Iraqis living outside of the country and the humanitarian crisis in which they find themselves; the challenges lawmakers must confront in backing legislation that funds acceleration of the resettlement process; as well as the need for the U.S. to finally come to terms with the humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq and accept the moral responsibility of addressing it.

The first panel consisted of Ellen Sauerbrey, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. The second panel was made up of Major General Paul D. Eaton; George Packer, staff writer at The New Yorker; Kristele Younes, refugee advocate at Refugees International; and a former employee of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad who, for security purposes, had to go by the alias "Sarah."

The common theme of the hearing was that it has taken the Administration and lawmakers far too long to acknowledge and address the suffering of displaced Iraqis, especially those who have risked their lives by working with American and Coalition forces. Assistant Secretary Sauerbrey attempted to explain why admitting Iraqi refugees into the U.S. is such a lengthy process and why the Administration has not taken legislative or monetary steps to provide relief and safety for the 3.9 million displaced Iraqis. She explained that the Presidential determination for resettlement this year is 70,000 inclusive, and that 10% of that--or 7,000 spots--is designated for Iraqis. Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, suggested that 7,000 is UNHCR's capacity for processing refugees, not ours. He went on to state that there is a nonpartisan consensus that the problem should be addressed and that questions should be asked.

Chairman Gary L. Ackerman of New York agreed, stating that if lawmakers and the Administration were serious about processing Iraqi refugees it could be done. Sauerbrey argued that since 9/11, and the Immigration of Nationality Act, the process has gotten much longer for Homeland Security to conduct security clearances. Four to six months is the average length of time for someone to go through the process of asylum.

Many obstacles are facing Iraqis as they seek refuge. For example, there is no way of processing IDPs for resettlement; they must first leave Iraq under extremely dangerous conditions and then apply through UNHCR in a neighboring country. If someone has paid a ransom for a kidnapped family member, or paid off the insurgency for their own lives, the U.S. considers this "providing material support to terrorists"and the individuals will not be granted visas under the provisions of the PATRIOT and Real ID Acts. Iraqis who worked or are still working with the U.S. are not allowed housing in the Green Zone, and no protection is given to them. Only 500 Special Immigrant Visas are given a year, and only to direct hires of the government; this is not including the countless Iraqis who worked for contractors and subcontractors.

Major General Eaton explained that 70,000 Chinese and 80,000 Indian immigrants were accepted into the United States in 2006. He urged lawmakers to immediately identify Iraqis who have helped the U.S. and grant them asylum, regardless of quotas. George Packer argued that, "We cannot allow more Iraqis to die while we fine-tune refugee settlement." His first recommendation was to make in-country processing available, or at the very least, to ensure safe transfer to neighboring countries. Kristele Younes warned lawmakers that the problem stretches farther than Iraqis who have aided U.S. efforts; the millions living in Syria and Jordan, and those displaced within the country should not be forgotten. She urged an increase in funding for local Iraqi and International NGOs, as well as fully endorsing UNHCR recommendations.

"Sarah" relayed her personal story of working with the U.S. and being hopeful that she would be a part of the liberation and democratization of Iraq. She now lives in Jordan, unable to return to her home in Iraq. She did not receive protection while working for the CPA, and was eventually fired when her job was given to a Jordanian citizen. Today, "Sarah" lives in fear, with nowhere to go; she is considered by many of her countrymen to be a traitor and a spy. She said that she does not regret having worked with the Americans in Iraq, only that she trusted the U.S. government, but they never trusted Iraqis.

Real initiatives must be taken to address the plight of the 3.9 million displaced Iraqis. General Eaton asked that our government act with the dignity and respect that the Iraqi people deserve. Chairman Ackerman explained that:
If the world's only superpower cannot protect Iraqis from the danger we put them in, then we are facing a bigger problem than I thought.
He stated that there must be funding and legislation put forth to back the rhetoric of concern coming from the Administration.

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