By Paul Lewis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 22, 2007
About 12,000 Iraqi refugees will be admitted into the United States over the next year as measures to speed up the process begin to take effect, government officials said yesterday.
The new target represents an increase in the number and pace of Iraqi refugees entering the country and means that 17 percent of the 70,000 refugees expected to be admitted next year will come from Iraq, officials from the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security told reporters.
An estimated 4 million Iraqis have been displaced and about 2.2 million have fled the country, mainly to Syria and Jordan, since the March 2003 U.S. invasion. Tens of thousands of those are believed to have left after they were targeted because of their work for U.S. or coalition authorities.
In February, State Department officials promised to expand their commitment to Iraqi refugees, but long delays in reviewing applications have drawn sharp criticism from lawmakers, refugee groups and senior diplomats.
Officials said that of the 11,000 refugee applicants referred to the United States by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, only 1,135 have been admitted. More are scheduled to enter before the end of the month, but officials acknowledged that they will probably fall short of the State Department's target of 2,000 arrivals this fiscal year.
The Bush administration announced on Wednesday the appointment of two senior officials who will work to improve the government's response to the Iraqi refugee crisis. Immigration law expert Lori Scialabba was appointed as a senior adviser at the Homeland Security Department, and diplomat James B. Foley will become the State Department's senior coordinator for Iraqi refugee issues.
Yesterday's announcement was received with caution by some lawmakers. They said the administration has an obligation to protect many more Iraqis whose lives have been endangered because of their work for U.S. or coalition authorities.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said the administration's performance has been "slow and halting," and he promised to press ahead with legislative reforms to U.S. refugee programs.
"America has an obligation to help those who are persecuted, especially those who have the assassin's target on their back because of their association with our government," he said.
But administration officials defended their record at yesterday's briefing, saying that before February there was no program in the region to handle the unexpected flood of Iraqi refugees.
"We had to literally build programs in Syria and Jordan," said Terry Rusch, who directs the office of admissions in the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. She added that the refugee program has "accelerated dramatically" now that resources are in place.
Paul Rosenzweig, deputy assistant secretary for policy at Homeland Security, described the government's efforts over the past six months as "heroic."
"You show me another government program that goes from a standing start, ground zero, to full on in six months," he said. Of the 4,300 Iraqi refugees interviewed by his department this fiscal year, he said, 753 have been rejected for reasons including criminal records and inconsistencies in their stories.
The officials conceded continued difficulty in processing cases in Syria, where a number of U.S. officials have been denied entry visas.
"Not only has DHS not been able to get in to do more adjudications, but we have not been able to expand our own processing staff at the pace we would normally have done because of restrictions by the government of Syria," Rusch said.
Syria has absorbed 1.5 million Iraqi refugees -- by far the most of any nation. But since September 2006, only 208 have been admitted to the United States after being processed in that country.