Prior to the visit to Syria that brought on this new agreement, only the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was allowed into Syria to process Iraqi refugees. UNHCR could then refer refugees to the U.S. for resettling, but many of these refugees were unable to reach State Department or DHS offices outside of Syria due to a severe lack of funds.
“This is obviously very good news,” said Jacob Kurtzer, a Congressional advocate for Refugees International. “We’re very happy, but it really does draw attention to the need for a continuous high-level diplomatic presence in Syria and the rest of the region.”I agree wholeheartedly with Jacob here. Lori Scialabba, who was appointed Associate Director of Refugee, Asylum and International Operations for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services just over a year ago, and James Foley, a career diplomat, deserve praise for speaking directly with Syria. We should also praise Syria, the UNHCR and UNICEF for accommodating 100,000 Iraqi schoolchildren in Syrian schools, a three-fold increase from last year's 33,000.
These developments are small victories for all of us, most importantly for the refugees themselves. But we need to keep an eye on the numbers and stay on top of the administration on this issue. There are 150,000 Iraqi schoolchildren in Syria who still need the education every child deserves. And bear in mind that in October, the first month of fiscal year 2008, the U.S. resettled just over 450 Iraqi refugees out of an expected 12,000 for the fiscal year. Already we're behind on our projections, but continuous pressure on Congress and the administration will get us the results we want.
Caption: Iraqi school children in a cramped basement in the Damascus district of Sayyida Zainab, a hub for Iraq refugees; M. Bernard for the UNHCR