Friday, July 06, 2007

EPIC Guest Blogger: Ken Bacon on U.S. Resettlement of Iraqi Refugees

Ken Bacon, President of Refugees International, is our guest blogger today. He outlines a more honorable U.S. policy toward Iraqi refugees.

It’s too early to cheer, but after months of delay and disappointment, the U.S. is beginning to admit more Iraqi refugees for resettlement here.

In June, 63 Iraqi refugees arrived in the U.S., bringing to 133 the number of Iraqis resettled in the first nine months of the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. This is still a very small number compared to the State Department’s various announcements that it was prepared to resettle from 7,000 to 20,000 Iraqis this year.

The hold up has been the Department of Homeland Security, which has moved slowly to issue its security protocols for processing Iraqis and getting interview teams into the field.

But resettlement will deal with only a small corner of the Iraqi displacement problem. An estimated 4.2 million Iraqis have fled their homes to escape violence in Iraq. Of the total, 2 million are internally displaced in Iraq, and 2.2 million are refugees, living primarily in Syria and Jordan.

Yesterday, I appeared on a panel at the Middle East Institute with Nir Rosen, an author and analyst who has spent a lot of time in Iraq and surrounding countries. Earlier this year he went to Northern Iraq and Egypt as a consultant for Refugees International. Nir noted that countries throughout the Middle East fear that Iraqis will become another population like the Palestinians—displaced, disenfranchised and potentially radicalized.

The possible radicalization of Iraqi refugees would be a disaster for the U.S. Not only would we be blamed for contributing to another destabilizing force in the Middle East, the U.S., Israel and our allies could be targeted by a newly radicalized group. For this reason, the U.S. needs a better, more aggressive and more generous policy for dealing with Iraqi refugees.

First, we need to do much more to help Jordan, Syria and other host countries bear the burden of Iraqi refugees. The State Department is starting to help host governments build and staff schools for Iraqi children, but the program is limited. In Jordan, there are an estimated 250,000 Iraqi children of school age, yet by some estimates, only 14,000 are in school. How are the rest spending their time? What will they and their families think of the U.S.? We also need to bolster the infrastructure for medical care and provide food and other support, where necessary.

Second, we need to help meet the needs of displaced families in Iraq. Many are cut off from the Public Distribution System—the government food rations on which most Iraqi families depend—when they move. We should work with the Iraqi government to make sure that no displaced families are left out.

Third, we need to step up our resettlement program so that more of the highly vulnerable Iraqis—particularly those who worked for the U.S.—can be protected. Every year, the U.S. sets a goal for the number of refugees it plans to admit. This year’s goal is 70,000. At the end of the first nine months of the current fiscal year, the U.S. had admitted 24,536. This gives us 45,000 more spaces to fill in the next three months, and most of those should go to Iraqis. Then, next year, we should lift that goal.

If we fail to help Iraqi refugees now, we could be paying the price for years to come.


Anonymous said...

What part does Homeland Security play in admitting refugees? I assume their role would be to prevent terrorists and other threats from entering, but what exactly does that entail, or have they even decided what that entails. What possible sollutions are there for speeding up this process for people obviously in urgent need.

Chris Breuer said...

Once UNHCR has interviewed refugees (at least twice) and has referred them to the United States, the Department of Homeland Security implements its own screening process of interviews, background checks and other security measures. Not until late May did DHS finally establish its own screening process for Iraqi refugees, a delay that prompted external pressure on the department. (Having this process in place most likely played a role in increasing June's new refugees to 63.) Normally, the process can take 3 to 5 years. The details of the screening process are unavailable, but I would hope there's an expedited process available to those who are "high-risk" cases.

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