By Jesse Bernstein and Parastou Hassouri
AMMAN – Fatima is a single mother who fled Iraq after militia had kidnapped her father and brother. She herself was threatened for being the only female Iraqi employee of a U.S. company in Iraq. As a divorced woman in Amman, Fatima is particularly vulnerable; she is being stalked by a Jordanian man who physically abused her once and threatened to have her deported. Fatima’s savings are also running out. Fortunately, she and her son registered with the United Nations refugee agency in 2007. But three years later, her resettlement application is still awaiting final approval from the U.S. government. Only then will she and her son be able to begin new lives in safety in the United States.
Fatima is not alone. She is one of many thousands of Iraqi refugees caught up in a lengthy and cumbersome resettlement process. It’s a process that is intended to provide safety for the most vulnerable refugees, including a significant number of Iraqis. The United States has resettled 43,000 Iraqis since 2004, but since we arrived in Amman last week, it has become clear to us that many of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who fled danger or persecution in Iraq are still at risk in their countries of first asylum, including Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. Many cases of those who are awaiting resettlement have gotten stuck in the system – even fallen through the cracks. These at-risk Iraqis must put their lives on hold, and their vulnerabilities only increase with the passage of time.
In another case, Hala and her husband, four children, and elderly mother, fled Iraq in 2004 to Jordan. They belong to a small Iraqi religious minority called Mandaeans – devotees of John the Baptist who live according to a basic principle of non-violence. The family had joined a massive exodus; according to Mandaean leaders, less than 7,000 Mandaeans remain in Iraq, down from 50,000 to 60,000 in 2003. In 2009, the U.S. State Department reported that threats, extortion, violence, and murders continue to target Mandaeans inside Iraq. Soon after arriving in Jordan, Hala’s family registered with the UN refugee agency. Six years later, they still await a final decision on their resettlement case. Although they have tried to adjust to life in Amman, it has not been easy. Hoping that a small amount of money could help support the family, Hala’s eldest son, age 23, began working in a restaurant. He was soon arrested by police and detained for 3 days before his family secured his release. Hala’s son now spends all his time at home, afraid to venture out into the streets. The family also has financial problems, especially because Hala’s mother requires medical treatment, an added burden for a family with dwindling savings. Meanwhile Hala’s sister’s family, who also fled Iraq in 2004, has already been resettled in the United States. Hala does not understand why they have left and she and her family remain.
These women and their families comprise some of the thousands of Iraqis who live in Jordan – and throughout the region – and whose futures remain uncertain. Approximately 34,000 Iraqis are currently registered with the UN refugee agency in Jordan alone. For these Iraqis, the instability of the present and the uncertainty of the future are taking a toll. The toll is financial: with limited access to the right to work, unemployment among Iraqis is high and savings are dwindling. The toll is physical: medical conditions requiring urgent attention are left untreated because shrinking funds have forced the UN refugee agency to cut back its support for tertiary medical care. And the toll is certainly psychological: the lives of many displaced Iraqis hang in limbo – they are unable to go back to Iraq or to build new lives in Jordan.
“Americans do not understand the consequences of the war in Iraq,” one refugee told us. With U.S. attention shifting away from Iraq, many Iraqis fear that they will be forgotten. Yet even seven years after the war began, its consequences are still felt acutely by hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis. The United States must recommit itself both to ensuring adequate funding for assistance programs in the region, and to maintaining support for resettlement as a durable solution for the most vulnerable refugees. To strengthen the resettlement program, the United States should:
• Improve staffing, timeliness, and coordination of security clearances for refugees awaiting a resettlement decision to the United States, allowing refugees who are slated for U.S. resettlement to move through the process without unnecessary delays;
• Improve the fairness and effectiveness of the resettlement process, including by providing detailed letters of denial that would enable refugees to submit meaningful appeals addressing the actual reasons for their denial; and
• Develop a fast-track process for refugees at imminent risk of physical harm, drawing off existing models implemented by resettlement countries such as Canada, Norway, and Sweden.
These steps are highlighted in our recently released set of recommendations for reform of the U.S. asylum and refugee systems. They would go a long way toward helping displaced Iraqis like Fatima and Hala, who struggle each day to survive and wait in vain for decisions from the U.S. government on their prospects to start afresh in a safe and secure environment.