U.S. Must Refocus on Safety of Displaced Iraqis
Washington, DC Today, two years after the bipartisan Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act became law, Human Rights First is calling for a renewed focus on the safety and security of Iraq's refugees, including those who have been targeted because of their work with the U.S. government, military, non-governmental organizations and journalists.
"The United States has improved its resettlement efforts over the last two years, but several serious unaddressed problems continue to delay some Iraqi refugees and their families stranded abroad in difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances,' said Human Rights First's Eleanor Acer. 'Just as troubling is the reality that most of Iraq's refugees will not be resettled and cannot return home given their very real security and protection concerns. The administration must ensure that protecting the rights of Iraq's refugees and displaced people is at the top of the U.S. foreign policy agenda in its discussions with Iraq, Syria, Jordan and other states."
In April 2009, Human Rights First issued a report, Promises to the Persecuted: The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2008, which recommended specific reforms to ensure that Iraqi refugees including those who have worked with the United States or U.S. groups are brought to safety in a timely manner. Today, the organization reiterated its call for the United States to implement these and other key reforms to help ensure the protection of Iraqi refugees and displaced people.
Specifically, Human Rights First urges the U.S. government to:
- Reduce processing times for Iraqi refugees who access the U.S. refugee program directly. The State Department should increase staffing at the Embassy in Baghdad and the International Organization of Migration, and the Department of Homeland Security should increase the frequency and staffing of its "circuit ride" visits to the region, so that the refugee applications of thousands of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis and their families facing danger can be processed expeditiously.
- Improve the multi-agency security clearance process. Many Iraqi refugees and other Iraqis who have worked for the United States have had their applications delayed for months or longer due to delays in the multi-agency security clearance process. The administration should implement improvements to this process promptly, including better coordination and additional resources to all agencies involved, so that refugees and others who meet all of the requirements for admission to the United Sates do not wait indefinitely many while facing on-going dangers in their countries of first asylum for final answers on their applications.
- Develop a formal system to fast-track refugee status determinations and resettlement processing for refugees who face imminent danger in their countries of first asylum. The priority access afforded under the Act is available only in specific locations and to specific populations. The United States should develop an effective process for fast-tracking cases involving urgent protection concerns. A wide range of individuals have been reported to face serious threats or harm, including U.S.-affiliated Iraqis, victims of sexual and gender-based violence, and LGBT refugees.
- Ensure that the U.S. devotes sufficient attention and priority to addressing the protection needs of Iraq's displaced people. Human Rights First welcomed President Obama's August 2009 appointment of Samantha Power, Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights at the National Security Council, to coordinate the work of the many U.S. agencies engaged on issues that affect Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons. The office of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights should be provided with adequate resources, including additional staff, to facilitate effective leadership, coordination, and consistent engagement with the Government of Iraq and the international community on the needs of displaced Iraqis.
The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act was first proposed in June 2007 by the late Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and former Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR). It mandated Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) for Iraqis who worked with the U.S. government, military, or contractors for at least a year; direct access to the U.S. refugee resettlement program for Iraqis who worked with the U.S. government, military, contractors, or U.S.-based media or NGOs, and certain minority groups; and refugee processing inside Iraq.
In Promises to the Persecuted, Human Rights First found that, despite a Congressional mandate intended to expedite Iraqi refugee processing times, only a small portion of eligible Iraqis had been granted safe haven in the United States. Since the Act became law, the United States has issued 3,064 SIVs to U.S.-affiliated Iraqis under the Act's terms. It has issued an additional 1,552 SIVs under a previous law, for a total of 4,616 SIVs issued to Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government, military, or contractors, and their families (as of September 30, 2009, the most recent data available from the State Department).
Human Rights First has estimated that there are approximately 146,000 U.S.-affiliated Iraqis, including Embassy direct hires, contractors, and employees of U.S.-based media and NGOs. This figure does not include spouses and children. The United States has promised to resettle 17,000 Iraqi refugees this fiscal year, and since the war began almost seven years ago, the State Department has brought approximately 38,000 Iraqis to safety in the United States through the refugee resettlement program. These refugees include religious minorities, persecuted women with children, and those who were targeted because of their work with the U.S. government. The United Nations refugee agency has stated that more than 53,000 vulnerable Iraqis remain in need of resettlement.