By Jesse Bernstein, Senior Associate/Pennoyer Fellow
and Sara Faust, Program Associate/Legal Assistant
As religious minorities in the Middle East continue to face rising levels of violence, the U.S. should urgently undertake a series of reforms in its resettlement program to remove unnecessary processing delays which leave Iraqi Christians and members of other vulnerable groups who choose to flee stranded in difficult and sometimes dangerous situations. As Human Rights First outlined in a recent report Living in Limbo: Iraqi Refugees and U.S. Resettlement, religious minorities from Iraq are one of several groups who continue to face a heightened level of systematic violence and persecution despite a decrease in overall violence in Iraq.
Christians in Iraq remain at serious risk. In coordinated attacks in late December 2010, militants left bombs on the doorsteps of Iraqi Christian homes in different parts of Baghdad, killing an elderly couple and injuring at least thirteen people. This incident follows a wave of attacks directed at religious minorities in Iraq, including an attack on a Baghdad church in which approximately 50 individuals were killed, including priests and infants. The UN Refugee Agency – UNHCR – reported that its offices in neighboring Syria, Jordan and Lebanon are registering an increasing number of Iraqi Christians arriving for assistance and help.
The recent bombing of a Christian Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt highlights the increased hostility and targeted violence of religious minorities in the region and an overall lack of protection for Christians who are targeted and/or forced to flee their homes in the face of mounting violence.
Despite the ongoing U.S. troop drawdown and the shift to a civilian-led operation in Iraq, many Iraqis, including religious and sexual minorities, Iraqis who are affiliated with the United States and women at risk of honor crimes, continue to face persecution and violence, circumstances that cause them to flee to different regions of Iraq or to seek refuge in countries such as Syria, Jordan, and Turkey. In 2010 alone, UNHCR registered just over 31,000 Iraqi refugees in the region. As of October 2010, a total of 195,428 Iraqi refugees are currently registered with UNHCR in the region, while an unknown number of additional refugees have not registered or let their registrations lapse. As documented through Human Rights First research in the region, lengthy delays in U.S. processing leave Iraqis slated for U.S. resettlement languishing for months – even years – in countries where they have limited opportunities to support their families and some – particularly those within Iraq – face life-threatening circumstances.
Human Rights First’s report, based on independent research and interviews with Iraqi refugees as well as government officials and UN staff, offers a series of recommendations to strengthen the U.S. resettlement program, including by ensuring timely and effective processing. Our primary recommendations to the U.S. Government include:
- Reduce unnecessary delays in the security clearance process. The National Security Council should, together with the Departments of State, Justice, Homeland Security and intelligence agencies, improve the inter-agency security clearance procedure to enable security checks for refugees and U.S.-affiliated Iraqis to be completed accurately and without unnecessary delays within a set time period;
- Develop and implement an emergency resettlement procedure for refugees facing imminent danger. The Department of State should continue to work with other relevant federal agencies to develop and implement a formal and transparent resettlement procedure for refugees who face emergency or urgent circumstances;
- Remove other impediments which continue to delay the applications of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis and Iraqi religious minorities. The Department of State, working with other agencies, should – in addition to addressing delays in security processing – continue to take other steps to eliminate case backlogs and address inefficiencies in the current Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) processing procedures;
- Provide information necessary for refugees to submit meaningful Requests for Reconsideration. The Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services should implement reforms to improve the fairness and effectiveness of the resettlement process, including by revising the current Notice of Ineligibility for Resettlement to provide case-specific factual and legal reasons for denial.
Through implementing these reforms, the Obama administration will ensure its resettlement program offers safe and secure passage for religious minorities and others who face persecution and are left with no choice but to flee their home countries.
To review Human Rights First’s full report, Living in Limbo: Iraqi Refugees and U.S. Resettlement, click here.
To review the report’s summary and key findings, click here.
To review a two page fact sheet, click here.
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