The Refugee Crisis

Sunday, August 12, 2007

AS MANY AS 110,000 Iraqis may be targeted as collaborators for helping U.S., coalition or foreign reconstruction efforts. These Iraqis and their families are frequently at risk of kidnapping, murder and persecution. At least 257 translators have already been killed, according to Human Rights First.

As a result, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has referred more than 8,000 Iraqis to the United States for resettlement this year alone. Yet fewer than 200 have been admitted. This embarrassingly slow trickle of resettled refugees -- Sweden takes more than 1,000 each month -- motivated Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, to write a cable last month urging the administration to guarantee visas for all Iraqis helping the United States.

The obstacles Iraqis face to be recommended by the UNHCR make these low resettlement rates all the more astonishing. Iraqis cannot apply for refugee status from within Iraq; they must first brave the dangers of crossing a border. If they make it, those fleeing violence and persecution may also find that because of a broad legal provision disqualifying refugees who have provided "material support" to terrorist organizations they can be denied resettlement in the United States if they have paid ransoms for kidnapped relatives. According to Human Rights First, in some cases involving kidnappings the UNHCR has decided not to refer even deserving applicants to the United States out of concern that the irrational "material support" provision will bar them from entry.

Bills introduced by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) could help oil the American refugee-processing machine. The bills would set up processing facilities in Iraq, establish Iraqi refugee coordinators at U.S. embassies in the region and authorize more funding. Both would create a special immigrant visa category for Iraqis who have worked for the United States, allowing them to apply for resettlement from within Iraq and without having to go through the UNHCR. The House bill also revises the "material support" provision to exempt cases in which the support was provided under duress.

Both bills also would require the United States to better assist Iraq's neighbors, which have absorbed more than 2 million refugees at great cost to their own economic and social stability. The State Department has taken some steps in this direction, including its recent pledge to help fund a UNHCR-UNICEF program subsidizing schooling for displaced Iraqi children.

We urge legislators to support these bills. No matter one's opinion on the war, this humanitarian crisis needs to be confronted and fixed.


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