By Amit R. Paley and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
BAGHDAD, June 3 -- The U.S. government has opened its first permanent office here for Iraqi refugees seeking to settle in the United States, responding to criticism that the Bush administration has failed to help thousands of Iraqis whose lives are in danger because of their work with American organizations.
The office, which began interviewing applicants May 10, has already finished processing 80 embassy employees for departure, and the first two arrived in the United States this week, according to Ambassador James B. Foley, who is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's senior coordinator for Iraqi refugees. Foley, in an interview in Washington, said that 1,141 refugees were settled in the United States in May and that he believes the administration will reach its goal of 12,000 for this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
The Baghdad refugee processing office, located in the capital's heavily fortified Green Zone, will make it possible for Iraqis who cannot travel outside the country to apply for resettlement. Iraqis have complained for years that they could not reach offices in Syria, Jordan and Egypt because of cost or visa restrictions.
"The whole goal is to provide greater access to people who are in trouble or in threat based on their association with the U.S.," said an American official in Baghdad, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not allowed to speak publicly.
More than 4.5 million Iraqis have fled their homes since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, making it the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 1.2 million Iraqis are in Syria, at least 500,000 are in Jordan and 350,000 are in Egypt, Lebanon and Persian Gulf nations. Close to 2 million are displaced within Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told a donors group in Sweden last week that his government would provide $195 million to resettle refugees who return to Iraq. Despite urging from Bush administration officials, Maliki has so far provided no more than $25 million to support Iraqis who are outside the country.
The UNHCR, which has been providing basic support to Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan, has said it needs an additional $400 million or it may have to reduce the aid it provides, but many nations in the area are withholding contributions until the Iraqi government provides additional funds to support its own people.
U.S. lawmakers and activists have criticized the Bush administration for what they consider insufficient care for Iraqis who risked their lives to aid the United States.
U.S. officials said the Baghdad office will accept applications under a new law that permits entry to Iraqis who have worked for the U.S. government; the American-led military coalition; contractors "closely aligned with the U.S. mission in Iraq" that have received funding from the U.S. government; and U.S.-based media organizations and nongovernmental organizations.
The extended families of those Iraqis are also eligible. The applicants must pass a background check and prove that they suffer from a "credible fear of persecution or a threat," a low barrier in a country where Iraqis are frequently killed for working with Americans, according to U.S. officials. As many as 70,000 Iraqis could be eligible and there is no cap on the program, U.S. officials said. They said the process from initial application to relocation ideally would take six to nine months.
Although 6,347 refugees have been settled in the past two years, an additional 6,000 have reached the final application stage since March and will likely be accepted soon, U.S. officials said.
Pincus reported from Washington.