For Eric Schwartz and Iraqi refugees, a second act

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.

Schwartz, 53, who is married to a former Australian diplomat and has two teenage children, has been working on humanitarian causes since he was a student.

He grew up in Syosset, N.Y., the son of a commercial film producer and a nursery school teacher.

"They were really very progressive in orientation, and very publicly oriented," he said. "It never would have occurred to me to do anything else but public service."

After getting degrees in law and international relations, Schwartz founded Asia Watch (now Human Rights Watch-Asia) and worked on Capitol Hill. He then spent eight years in the White House under President Bill Clinton.

The hardest part about his current job? The danger to humanitarian workers. More than 700 have been killed on duty over the past decade, he said.

"In many parts of the world, on top of all the logistical and operational and policy challenges . . . you now have an exceptionally more challenging security environment," he said.

Schwartz has felt the toll personally. In July 2003, he moved to Geneva to become chief of staff to Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.

"It was all very exciting. I had enormous regard for the guy," Schwartz said.

One month later, Vieira de Mello was killed in a massive car-bombing in Baghdad, along with 21 other U.N. employees.

"I think that event is seen as really kind of a seminal moment" for humanitarian workers, he said.

Perhaps Schwartz's greatest accomplishment in his current job hasn't come overseas, but at home.

Early on, he traveled around the United States to see how resettled refugees were faring.

"It was heartbreaking to hear the stories," he recalled. Refugees were struggling in the depressed economy, forced to decide between buying food or diapers for their children.

Schwartz realized that the State Department grant of $900 given to refugees for housing, food and other expenses for their first several weeks had not kept up with inflation. He decided to double it, to $1,800.

"I made it clear to my staff: To me, this is not a negotiating position," Schwartz said.

The White House gave the green light, and lawmakers expressed support.

Big challenges remain. With the Iraqis, for example, many more are arriving through the refugee program. But a separate program created by Congress for Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government has been criticized as cumbersome and ineffective.

Only about 2,100 of the 15,000 available visas have been issued under that program.

Recently, 22 House and Senate members wrote to the State and Defense departments asking for a comprehensive plan to protect the thousands of Iraqis who worked with U.S. forces, including a possible airlift.

"Schwartz has a great reputation," said Kirk W. Johnson, executive director of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. "The main policy tool that I want put back on the table is directly derived from his leadership on Operation Pacific Haven."

That was the airlift of U.S. allies from northern Iraq to Guam, after Saddam Hussein's troops moved to reclaim control of that area in 1996.

Schwartz said the Obama administration is focusing on promoting reconciliation and security in Iraq. "We don't expect the kind of contingency the members described," he said.

However, he added, "our government certainly has to be prepared to respond quickly and effectively if large numbers of vulnerable people are at risk."

The refugee bureau has received strong support from both sides of the aisle.

"I want to thank you for your leadership," Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) told Schwartz at the recent hearing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

"It has been extraordinary. And this Republican has a great deal of respect for you."

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