By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Iraq is emerging as one of the fastest-growing refugee crises in the world, with an estimated 1.7 million Iraqis displaced from their homes and up to 100,000 fleeing the country to Jordan, Syria and other nations amid intensifying sectarian violence, U.S. officials and experts testified yesterday.
Yet the United States has allowed only 466 Iraqis to immigrate under refugee status since 2003 -- including 202 out of 70,000 slots for refugees last year -- in part because of more stringent security screenings, officials said at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Democratic lawmakers and advocates for refugees called for increased U.S. funding and other initiatives to help the fleeing Iraqis, and in particular those who have risked their lives working with American forces.
"We should not repeat the tragic and immoral mistake from the Vietnam era and leave friends without a refuge and subject to violent reprisals," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee's chairman. The Bush administration has $20 million in its fiscal 2007 budget for Iraqi refugee assistance; the United States is spending $8 billion a month on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The refugee explosion predicted by the United Nations that did not materialize immediately after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq is taking place now, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, told the committee.
The exodus of Iraqis from their neighborhoods and across international borders has burgeoned since the February bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra ignited widespread killings between religious sects, reversing an earlier trend in which 300,000 Iraqis returned to their homeland from 2003 through 2006, Sauerbrey said.
"Due to the upsurge in sectarian violence in 2006, this trend of repatriation has reversed itself, and at present more Iraqis are fleeing their homes to other areas of Iraq and to neighboring countries than are returning," Sauerbrey said.
As many as 2 million Iraqis have fled the country in recent years and before the war, including about 700,000 to Jordan and 600,000 to Syria, nations that have taken the bulk of the exodus, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Many of the refugees have been "left with minimal resources and are living on the margins," Sauerbrey said, with children lacking access to school and adequate health care.
The most practical, immediate way to alleviate the crisis is to step up aid for refugees in these host countries to ensure they do not close their borders, officials and experts said, calling for a regional conference on the topic.
"We have to focus on ways to accommodate them in the countries nearby -- Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon," said Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International. "Otherwise they will be rejected, and there will be no safety valve whatsoever," said Bacon, who called for the Bush administration to double its contribution to the UNHCR budget for Iraqi displacement.
Still, Democratic lawmakers stressed that the United States can and should do more to resettle Iraqis in this country.
"We have a special obligation to keep faith with the Iraqis who have bravely worked for us -- and have often paid a terrible price for it -- by providing them with safe refuge in the U.S.," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the committee's immigration panel.
Still, two Iraqis who testified yesterday -- using pseudonyms and speaking from behind a screen to protect their identities -- illustrated how difficult it is for even the most loyal Iraqi allies to gain sanctuary in the United States.
One man, a 42-year-old truck driver who delivered water to U.S. military forces, recounted how insurgents had blocked his truck one morning, beat him and broken the arm of his son, and threatened to kill him if he kept working for the Americans. "I stayed up every night" afterward watching for attackers, he said, but continued delivering water.
Five months later, he said, insurgents stopped him again, ordered him to drive to the desert and then beat him unconscious. He then decided to flee Iraq with his wife and six children. After passing through five countries on four continents, the family arrived in the United States two years ago by taxi from Mexico on a fake Greek passport with the aid of smugglers. He was detained by U.S. authorities but finally gained asylum.
Another man, a 27-year-old interpreter for the U.S. military, was targeted for assassination, he testified. Fleeing Mosul "just hoping to stay alive," he was injured by a car bomb. He won U.S. asylum after an Army general intervened.
"Without our translators, we are deaf and dumb," testified Marine Capt. Zachary J. Iscol. Iscol's interpreter faced death threats and risked his life at Iscol's side during a battle in Fallujah but has not gained refuge in the United States.