U.S. off pace on refugee goal

But administration says it's on track to admit over 9,000 new Iraqis

April 11, 2008|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- The United States remains on track to accept 12,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of September, despite having fallen sharply behind the pace needed to meet that resettlement pledge, administration officials said yesterday.

The Bush administration fell well short of last year's target of admitting 7,000 Iraqis and has resettled fewer than 3,000 in the first half of the current fiscal year. But Ambassador James Foley, the top State Department official on Iraqi refugees, said the government is now able to process many more candidates for admission.

"Bringing significant numbers of Iraqis into the U.S., which was slow, which was criticized, is turning around," he told the Helsinki Commission, a U.S. agency that works with Europe on security, economic and environmental affairs. "You are going to see in the coming months ... tremendous numbers of Iraqi refugees arriving."

Still, Foley described the refugee crisis as "an evolving, alarming picture" and said the principal challenge is money to support the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who will never be resettled. The United States is contributing $278 million this year to an international effort; the United Nations and others are seeking $890 million.

"The bottom line is it must be funded," he said. "We believe that the U.S. has contributed substantially, and it is now a diplomatic challenge for us ... to bring others into the equation."

The United States is looking for contributions from allies in Europe and the Middle East to help support the estimated 2 million Iraqis who have fled since the start of the war. Most have settled in Syria, Jordan and other neighboring countries, where they are straining resources and exacerbating regional tensions.

The Helsinki Commission, co-chaired by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, heard testimony yesterday from Foley and others on the humanitarian and security impact of the exodus.

Advocates for refugees say many of the displaced came from the Iraqi middle class, politically moderate professionals who are living on dwindling savings in countries where they typically are not allowed to work. The long-term goal, U.S. and other officials say, is restoring stability to Iraq so they can return home.

"Clearly, this crisis will only be resolved through diplomatic efforts to achieve a political resolution of Iraq's internal conflicts," said Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. "Until that time, much needs to be done to relieve the suffering of all displaced Iraqis, whose situation becomes more precarious by the day."

Michael Gabaudan, the representative in Washington of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, described Iraqi refugees as "a highly traumatized population." A survey of Iraqi refugees by the U.N. agency found that 77 percent had endured shelling or rocket attacks, 75 percent knew someone who had been killed or murdered, 23 percent had had a family member kidnapped and 16 percent had been tortured.

And they have not escaped hardship by fleeing Iraq.

"We certainly have heard anecdotally that there are extremely worrying instances of different kinds of social ills developing - prostitution, human trafficking, human smuggling," Foley said.

The United States admitted just 2,627 Iraqis from October through March. But the numbers have been increasing steadily, from 245 in December to 375 in January to 444 in February to 751 in March.

Foley said the low numbers reflect the State Department's limited capacity last year to conduct interviews, but he said they would improve. "They're still quite short of where we expect them to be in just a few months," he said.

Noel Saleh of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Dearborn, Mich., said it was "heartening" that U.S. officials were optimistic they could meet this year's target, but he called the numbers admitted so far "minuscule."

"This is totally inadequate to address the needs of this needy population," he said.

Saleh said his agency has found higher incidences of post-traumatic stress disorder and other health problems among Iraqis.

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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