8-2-2011By Ruthie Epstein
Refugee Protection Program
Since the United States invaded Iraq more than six years ago, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have fled the country, to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey, and two million more have been internally displaced. Iraqis who worked with the U.S. government or military were among those groups targeted with harassment, violence, or murder – along with journalists, scholars, religious minorities, LGBTI people, and tens of thousands of others. A July 2011 report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction concludes that “Iraq remains an extraordinarily dangerous place to work,” and that it is “less safe… than 12 months ago.” The security problems inside Iraq persist, even as the U.S. military prepares for withdrawal. It is not safe for Iraqi refugees to return to their country en masse. And the United States – as a main actor in the war – continues to bear responsibility to address this ongoing humanitarian crisis. If our nation is to uphold its tradition of refugee protection, and to demonstrate leadership in the international community, we cannot let the Iraqi refugee program stop assisting – in a timely manner – those in greatest need.
The past several weeks have seen increased media coverage in particular on the plight of Iraqis who assisted the U.S. government or military in Iraq. It’s been reported in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times, with editorials in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Miami Herald. The basic gist is that United States has an obligation to provide safe haven to Iraqis who risked their lives to help the United States in Iraq and have been targeted as a result of their work.
This argument is very true – it’s one made consistently by Human Rights First and some other refugee advocacy groups, along with veterans’ organizations, and then Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, beginning in early 2007, when the dangers facing U.S.-affiliated Iraqis inside Iraq first came to light. Since late 2007, refugee resettlement and special visa programs have been in place to help U.S.-affiliated Iraqis. Following a period of unconscionable inaction on the part of the U.S. government in the early years of the war, the State Department eventually built up a major resettlement infrastructure in the region. And after Congress instructed the government to establish a Special Immigrant Visa program for U.S.-affiliated Iraqis in the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, signed into law by President Bush in 2008, this group had access to an additional avenue of relief. These developments grew from bipartisan efforts in Congress, led by the late Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), long a champion for refugees, and then Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR).
Since 2006, the United States has resettled 59,365 Iraqi men, women, and children through the resettlement program (as of June 30). An additional 5,393 U.S.-affiliated Iraqis and their families have received visas through to United States through the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program (as of March 31). All refugee and immigrant visa applicants must undergo a rigorous security screening process, which has been outlined by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In May 2007, DHS and the State Department implemented an enhanced security screening process for all Iraqi refugee applicants, and in late 2010, DHS added an additional “pre-departure” security check for all refugees abroad whose resettlement to the United States has otherwise been approved. This new pre-departure check was likely a response to fact that one of the two Iraqi men recently arrested and indicted on terrorism-related charges had been approved to enter the United States as a refugee despite the fact that his fingerprints had been found on an unexploded IED recovered by the United States in Iraq in 2005.
As recent media coverage has highlighted, Congress allocated 5,000 SIVs per year for five years, and, four years in, only a small percentage of that visa allocation has actually been issued. In 2009, Human Rights First released a comprehensive review of the SIV and refugee programs available to U.S.-affiliated Iraqis. In that report, we highlighted the under-utilization of the SIV program, as well as the long backlogs for refugee and SIV applicants. Despite the hard work of U.S. and UN refugee agency officials on the ground, those backlogs persist. The addition of the new pre-departure security check this year has made the wait for otherwise approved refugees and SIV recipients even longer.
While waiting, Iraqi families often languish in destitute or dangerous situations in their countries of first asylum – like Jordan, Syria, Egypt, or Lebanon, as documented extensively in a 2010 Human Rights First report.
There is much the U.S. government can do to help ensure that U.S.-affiliated Iraqis and other vulnerable refugees do not face prolonged processing times, and can be brought to safety as quickly as possible, including:
- Develop and implement an emergency resettlement procedure for refugees facing imminent danger. The Department of State should continue the efforts it has already begun 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. This procedure should enable resettlement to take place within a set time period, and facilitate transfers of refugee cases to UNHCR’s Emergency Transit Centers when appropriate.
- Improve the timeliness of resettlement processing, including through properly resourcing and addressing unnecessary extended delays in the security clearance process. Effective and accurate background security checks are an essential component of any admissions program, and they are necessary to protect the American people as well as the refugee system itself. However, background check processes need to be adequately staffed, coordinated and prioritized in order to ensure they are conducted in a timely and effective manner – and senior government officials need to make sure this coordination and prioritization actually happens. The National Security Council should, together with the Departments of State, Justice, Homeland Security and intelligence agencies, improve the interagency security clearance procedure – including by ensuring adequate staffing, coordination and prioritization – to enable security checks for refugees and U.S.-affiliated Iraqis to be completed accurately and without unnecessary delays.
- Remove other impediments that continue to delay the applications of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis. The Department of State, working with other agencies, should – in addition to addressing delays in security processing – continue to take other steps to eliminate refugee and SIV case backlogs and address inefficiencies in the current SIV processing procedures, such as eliminating redundant or unnecessary requests for documentation at the “Chief of Mission” (COM) approval stage, establishing focal points who are authorized to track – and intervene on – SIV applications as they move through a complex interagency process, and establishing a formal review process of denials of COM approvals as well as the visas themselves.
In February 2009, President Obama affirmed at Camp Lejeune that the United States has “a strategic interest – and a moral responsibility – to act” to address the needs of displaced Iraqis. Since that time, U.S. interests and responsibilities in the Middle East have shifted. But the nation’s obligation to U.S.-affiliated Iraqis and others displaced by the war in Iraq will not disappear with the drawdown.