Riding the Slow Train on Iraqi Refugee Resettlement

By Al Kamen
Monday, May 14, 2007

The United Nations puts the total number of Iraqi refugees at 2 million outside the country, with about the same number displaced inside the country.

Of those outside the country, about half are in Syria and 700,000 are in Jordan; the rest are in Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Refugees International estimates the number of displaced people is growing by about 50,000 a month.

Unlike the refugee camps that often crystallize the plight of those fleeing their homes, this group is slipping into urban areas. It has become a hidden underclass, buying or renting houses or apartments in Damascus or Amman -- where housing prices have soared.

So you'd think the United States, which might be argued has had some role in creating this situation, might want to do something to help these folks -- maybe by taking some refugees and resettling them in this country.

For a long time, Washington basically denied the existence of a refugee problem. Then at the end of 2006, the State Department said the United States would resettle 7,000 Iraqis in 2007 -- not all that many, but a huge increase from the 466 resettled since 2003.

So how many were resettled last month? 500? 600? Well, not quite. Actually, the total for April, according to the State Department, was . . . drumroll . . . ONE. Yes, that's uno. The total since the fiscal year started Oct. 1 is 69. At this rate, far from resettling 7,000, the State Department will be lucky to match last year's total of 202.

What's the problem?

There's lots of finger-pointing among the State Department, the United Nations and the Department of Homeland Security -- which has yet to come up with a new screening process so that refugees can be vetted for security purposes.

"It's not easy, but it's very frustrating," Refugees International President Kenneth Bacon said last week. "State is ready to move, but DHS" has no procedures or rules set up.

The United Nations has referred 3,000 candidates this year for screening, but the State Department has yet to review them and DHS has to approve.

"There are understandable security concerns," Bacon said, and "a legitimate fear, but eventually they have to figure out how to do it.

"The real issue is, does the president care about this problem?" he said. "Until this is a top-level government concern, not much is going to happen."

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