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U.S. Agrees To Resettle Refugees From Iraq

By Nora Boustany and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 15, 2007

The United States will accelerate the resettlement of about 7,000 Iraqis referred by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and will contribute $18 million to the agency's appeal for Iraq, about one-third of the total, Undersecretary of State Paula J. Dobriansky said Wednesday.

Plans call for the paperwork allowing the Iraqis to enter the United States to be completed by the end of September, said Dobriansky, appearing at a news conference in Washington with U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, and Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey.

The 7,000 have left Iraq and are waiting in third countries, such as Jordan and Syria. A U.S. team is scheduled to go to Amman, Jordan, on Feb. 26 to begin processing them. Department of Homeland Security officials will conduct interviews, followed by health screenings.

Dobriansky said the Bush administration is working with Congress to develop legislation to allow in other Iraqis who are at special risk in Iraq because of their close association with the U.S. government. As violence there continues unabated, about 2 million Iraqis have fled the country, mostly to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, while 1.7 million are displaced inside Iraq, according to the United Nations. Refugees International, a Washington-based advocacy group, has called the swelling migration "the fastest-growing humanitarian crisis in the world."

In an interview, Sauerbrey said that from 2003 to last September, a total of 466 Iraqis were resettled in the United States as refugees, 202 of them in the last fiscal year. "People ask, 'Why weren't there more?' " she said. "Until last year, we were resettling people back to Iraq. People wanted to go home."

In the briefing, she said it was not until after the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra last February that sectarian violence triggered "a significant outward movement."

In Baghdad, Iraq's immigration minister, Abdul-Samad Sultan, called on neighboring countries to end "oppressive measures" restricting entry and services to Iraqis fleeing violence.

In a recent interview, Sultan criticized Iraq's neighbors for issuing only brief residency visas to Iraqi refugees, if allowing entrance at all, and for preventing Iraqi students from attending public schools and subjecting refugees to repeated searches and denigrating treatment. Sultan did not identify the countries, but other officials said Syria and Jordan, with the largest number of displaced Iraqis, were the biggest concern.

Jordan now bars Iraqi men ages 17 to 35 from entering, U.S. officials have said. Many Iraqis have trouble placing their children in public or private schools in neighboring countries. Syria has begun to issue 15-day residency permits to Iraqis and after that is treating them as illegal immigrants, Iraqi officials said.

"They are getting more strict," said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group. "I think that given the situation inside Iraq, it's clear that people are fleeing because their lives are in danger, they are therefore refugees, and they should be protected as such."

An Iraqi government official said Denmark is considering deporting about 600 of the 25,000 Iraqi refugees living there. The British government also has considered sending Iraqis home, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In Washington, Dobriansky said the United States is committed to help the Baghdad government create a safe environment so Iraqis can return home. "At the same time, we have a responsibility to respond to the immediate needs of Iraqis who have fled violence and persecution."

Dobriansky said she has been asked by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to lead a task force to respond to the situation.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, last week welcomed the creation of the task force to deal with "this massive humanitarian crisis in Iraq and neighboring countries."

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who traveled to the Middle East in December, said at a recent briefing at the Council on Foreign Relations that he had told Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that it was in his best interest to help stabilize Iraq and curb insurgent activity to stem the flow of Iraqi refugees into Syria.

An official of an Arab government, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Syria is allowing insurgents to slip across its borders into Iraq while ignoring the transfer of funds to Iraqi insurgents through its territory from Iran and from radical Sunni individuals in Saudi Arabia.

Guterres, who has visited the region, told reporters Wednesday that Syria and Jordan, though not signatories to the 1951 U.N. convention on refugees, were bearing the brunt of Iraq's refugee crisis "based on their own Arab hospitality tradition." He suggested that the generosity of the past few years was taking a toll on those countries.

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees is burdening their infrastructures, education and health systems and raising concerns about security, Guterres added.

He visited Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria and Jordan before coming to Washington to discuss how protection and assistance can be provided to Iraqi refugees.

Dobriansky said Washington would fully support a conference by the U.N. refugee agency to be held in Geneva in April to secure pledges from international donors. The $18 million U.S. pledge to the agency will be in addition to more than $76 million it has provided for worldwide operations over the last four years.

Guterres said that the 7,000 refugees to be resettled in the United States would be the first of 20,000 who will eventually be resettled in third countries.

Partlow reported from Baghdad.

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