U.S. ignores plight of Iraqi refugees


The Providence Journal

Each month, about 100,000 Iraqis are escaping the chaos and sectarian violence of their homeland. Thus far, about 2 million Iraqis have fled, most heading to Jordan, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Throughout the 1990s, while Saddam Hussein was tyrannizing his countrymen, the United States admitted nearly 5,000 Iraqi refugees each year. Yet today — more than three years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq — the numbers have plummeted. In 2004, the United States welcomed only 66 Iraqi refugees. Since then, we’ve admitted just 400.

Officially, the United States claims that the refugee situation is temporary, and that most displaced Iraqis will eventually return. Hence, for the past few years, the United States has had a quota of no more than 500 Iraqi refugees each year.

Realistically, however, Iraq’s instability has made it too dangerous for many refugees, especially Iraq’s Chaldean Christians, to return. And for much of the past few years, the State Department and the United Nations have been at odds over who is responsible for determining which Iraqis technically qualify for resettlement.

With the situation failing to improve, however, the Bush administration seems poised to greatly increase the number of Iraqi refugees America is willing to welcome, and it has approached the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for this purpose. The administration is in the awkward position of having to link the concept of liberation with floods of refugees.

Despite the Iraqi quota, President Bush has the legal authority to immediately admit 20,000 additional refugees. And eventually, the number of Iraqi refugees resettling in the United States could go much higher.

Refugees are a special category of American immigrant. Escaping persecution because of their faith, political allegiance, ethnicity or social affiliation, refugees account for only 5 to 10 percent of each year’s immigrant flow.

Among immigrants, refugees are the most in need of immediate help. But after arrival, they typically form vibrant, civic-minded communities across the United States — from the Vietnamese of Los Angeles to the Cubans of Miami.

When it comes to Iraq’s refugees, however, many misguided concerns cloud the debate — including fears that terrorists will use the refugee system to infiltrate the United States.

But not one of the 9/11 hijackers entered the country as a refugee. The wait is long, the numerical odds are very low and the degree of pre-screening creates a very high set of hurdles.

Consider the screening that a refugee must face before entering the United States:

First, a United Nations official conducts an interview to examine the subject’s history and to determine if he meets the legal definition for refugee status. Next, there is an interview by a U.S. embassy officer, who compiles personal data and verifies the subject’s identity.

After the identity is run through all U.S. security databases and watch lists, an Immigration and Naturalization Service agent conducts another interview to evaluate the merits of the case, take fingerprints and snap photos.

Once in the U.S., the applicant undergoes even more interviews. So even if a terrorist could convincingly assume the identity of a refugee, it would be far easier to overstay a travel visa. In 2005, fewer than 42,000 people out of a refugee population of 8.4 million completed the process.

Moreover, a refugee who meets the criteria for resettlement has no guarantee that he will be resettled in the United States; he is as likely to end up in Australia or Europe.

Further, a refusal to admit more refugees is likely to foster terrorism, not quell it. Around the world, refugees living in camps are subject to malnutrition, disease, overcrowding and violence. Education opportunities are meager, and the level of desperation high. Many refugees, such as the Burmese in Thailand, are located in remote and dangerous border areas where they are prey to criminal gangs and militias.

Look at history: Palestinian refugees warehoused in the Gaza strip and West Bank, left to fester for decades, spawned the two intifadas against Israel, while refugee camps in South Lebanon have been fertile recruiting ground for suicide bombers.

For generations, the United States has prided itself on leading the world in rescuing refugees. As displaced Iraqis look for a new place to call home — fearful that they’ll never be able to return to their native countries — it’s imperative that we welcome them.

(Philip Peters, a State Department official during the Reagan and first Bush administrations, is vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.)