U.S. Can't Keep Up On Visas for Iraqis

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 25, 2008

The State Department cannot resettle in the United States about 25,000 Iraqi interpreters and other refugees who worked for the U.S.-led coalition over the next two years because of limits on the number of applications that can be reviewed, according to Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte.

Human rights agencies, led by Refugees International, say roughly that number of refugees are in danger because they were employed by the U.S. government, the military or their contractors.

But in a July 16 letter to former ambassador Frank G. Wisner, who represents the groups, Negroponte wrote that "there are inherent limits to refugee processing capacity in the region that would not accommodate the substantially higher resettlement numbers you are proposing."

Wisner, in a July 3 letter to Negroponte, had called on the Bush administration to resettle 12,500 Iraqis in each of the next two years. Assuming each would bring two family members, the total influx each year would be about 37,500 people.

"Most of these have left or are in the process of leaving the country and face an urgent need of assistance and protection as their resources run out," Wisner wrote.

"Those who suffer as a consequence of violence in Iraq demand our special attention," said Wisner, who served as U.S. ambassador to India, Egypt, the Philippines and Zambia as well as Defense Department undersecretary for policy.

The Bush administration and the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have been slow to respond to the Iraq refugee problem, which involves nearly 5 percent of the population. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has been leading efforts to aid the Iraqis, about 2.7 million people are internally displaced from their homes and 2.3 million have fled to neighboring countries, primarily Syria and Jordan.

The Iraqi refugee problem worsened in 2004 after fighting broke out between Sunni and Shiite militias. Maliki has delayed responding to requests for additional funds to support those who have fled his country, telling U.S. officials that most of them opposed his regime and that he did not believe the numbers were as large as the UNHCR claimed.

Under a program initiated by Congress for interpreters who worked directly for U.S. forces, 783 Iraqis and 291 Afghans, along with 2,084 dependents, have entered the United States over the past two years, according to the most recent State Department figures.

An additional 900 former Iraqi and Afghan interpreters whose lives have been threatened are now being processed by the State Department under a new program that permits as many as 5,000 people a year to enter from now through 2013.

Yesterday, the U.S. Embassy in Iraq announced it would begin interviewing applicants for the expanded program in Baghdad, ending the necessity for Iraqis who qualify to go to Syria or Jordan.

Negroponte said in his letter that "we see real potential to resettle Iraqis associated with the United States through our nascent in-country program," a reference to the new plan to interview potential refugees in Baghdad.

But Negroponte said "formidable logistical and security challenges must be overcome in Baghdad."

Other groups that are not part of the U.S.-employed interpreter refugee resettlement program include Iraqis who believe they are at risk because they worked for U.S. media or organizations associated with the U.S. mission that received government funding.

The U.S. goal for resettling such Iraqi refugees this fiscal year is 12,000 by Sept. 30. As of June 30, according to State Department officials, 6,463 had arrived.

The Wisner group also requested that the United States provide $1.35 billion a year to support 2 million other Iraqis who have fled to Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates but hope to return to their homes when it is safe.

Negroponte responded that as of July 16, the United States had provided $287 million this fiscal year for humanitarian assistance to Iraqi refugees and that Congress had just approved an additional $315 million, "a significant portion of which will be spent on Iraq-related programming."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company