10-25-2011By Ruthie Epstein
Researcher & Advocate, Refugee Protection Program
President Obama’s announcement on Friday that all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011, in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement signed by President Bush, marked the end of another chapter in the nine-year saga that is the Iraq War.
As the Iraqi and the U.S. governments continue their preparations for the transition, they must not forget the over two million Iraqis displaced by the war, hundreds of thousands of whom fled to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and other countries in the region to escape violence and persecution in their home country. Included are Iraqis who worked for the U.S. who have been targeted for their U.S. affiliation with harassment, threats, violence, or murder.
Since 2007, the U.S. government has resettled over 60,000 Iraqi refugees, providing them with safety and limited assistance to rebuild their lives in the United States. The United States has also issued 2,729 Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to U.S.-affiliated Iraqis through a program created with widespread bipartisan support In an April 2009 report, “Promises to the Persecuted: The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act,” Human Rights First explained this program in detail and offered recommendations to improve its processes.
Yet tens of thousands of Iraqis remain vulnerable throughout the region, including inside Iraq, where, according to the Washington Post, “the U.S. military is leaving behind a country that remains violent, especially for Iraqis who worked closely with U.S. forces.”
Iraqis with no U.S. affiliation, including religious and sexual minorities, can face significant danger or persecution as well. Many of these refugees have already made applications for SIVs or for resettlement in the United States. Due to a significant processing backlog in the region, as well as delays in the completion of security checks, these Iraqi women, men, and children remain in limbo for months or longer awaiting final decisions from the U.S. government on their very future.
If they are waiting inside Iraq, they may face continuing threats to their safety. If they are waiting outside Iraq, where the majority of Iraqi refugees have no access to formal legal status or employment authorization, they may be unable to support their families. Many live in constant risk of arrest, detention, and possible deportation. All live with the psychological uncertaintyabout their futures and the futures of their children. Human Rights First’s “Living in Limbo: Iraqi Refugees and U.S. Resettlement,” issued in December 2010, described the protection challenges faced by Iraqi refugees in the region and offered recommendations to improve the resettlement process.
U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq should not signal an end to its commitment to help the most vulnerable Iraqis displaced by the war. In 2009, President Obama described displaced Iraqis as “living consequence[s] of this war,” and affirmed that “America has a strategic interest – and a moral responsibility – to act.” The strength of his argument is no less today.
To back up the commitment with action, Human Rights First continues to urge the U.S. government to ensure timely and effective processing of refugee resettlement and visa applications for Iraqis, including U.S.-affiliated Iraqis, by:
- Reducing unnecessary delays in the security clearance process. The National Security Council should, together with the Departments of State, Homeland Security, Justice, and intelligence agencies, improve the inter-agency security clearance process to enable checks for refugees and visa applicants to be completed accurately and without unnecessary delay. These improvements should serve to strengthen the effectiveness of the security clearance process more broadly.
- Developing and implementing an emergency resettlement procedure for refugees facing imminent danger. The State Department should continue to work with other federal agencies to develop and implement a formal and transparent resettlement procedure for refugees who face emergency or urgent circumstances. This procedure should include a set timeframe for processing emergency or urgent cases.
- Removing other impediments that delay the applications of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis. The State Department, working with other federal agencies, should – in addition to working to reduce delays in security checks – take other steps to eliminate refugee and SIV backlogs and to address inefficiencies in the current SIV processing procedures.
- Supporting protection of Iraqi refugees in the Middle East region, encouraging strengthened Iraqi government responsibility to provide solutions for displaced persons, and demonstrating leadership in funding the U.N.’s Iraq appeals.