For Eric Schwartz and Iraqi refugees, a second act

Assistant Secretary Eric P. Schwartz speaks with women displaced by conflict in eastern Congo.
Assistant Secretary Eric P. Schwartz speaks with women displaced by conflict in eastern Congo. (Courtesy Of State Department)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; 8:19 PM

At a recent hearing, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin warned the State Department's top refugee official that Iraqis who had worked for the U.S. military would be in increasing jeopardy during the American drawdown.

"Let me just remind you that in 1996, we had an airlift of Iraqis" involved with U.S. organizations, when their security was threatened, said Cardin (D-Md.).

"You don't have to remind me" about the airlift, replied the official, Eric P. Schwartz. "Because I managed it at the National Security Council."

Fourteen years after that dramatic operation, Schwartz is again grappling with the resettlement of Iraqis - this time, as assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration.

During the first several years of the Iraq conflict, the administration of George W. Bush was intensely criticized for accepting only a trickle of the 3 million or more Iraqis who had fled their homes.

But the flow of Iraqis to the United States has dramatically expanded, to 18,000 last year.

It is now the largest refugee resettlement program in the world.

"The numbers we're doing have risen to the point at which we can feel we're doing right by this community," Schwartz said in an interview.

Still, lawmakers peppered Schwartz at the hearing last month about whether enough was being done to cut red tape and protect the translators and others who face retaliation for having helped U.S. forces.

Schwartz's office deals with a growing number of displaced people around the globe. By the end of last year, about 43 million people had been driven from their homes by conflict or disasters - the highest figure in more than a decade.

In his first year, Schwartz has visited squalid Somali refugee camps in Kenya, urged Sri Lanka's president to improve conditions for civilians displaced by war and tried to prevent Thailand from kicking out thousands of Hmong Laotians.

"I hope I'm a relentless advocate for the interests of vulnerable people," he said.

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