U.S. Resettlement Plan Stalled for Iraqis in Syria

Iraqi refugees in Syria are paying the price of strained relations between Syria and the United States.

While the Bush administration has pledged to resettle more than 2 million Iraqis who have fled to Syria, Jordan and other Middle East countries to the United States, the process has been stalled for Iraqis in Syria.

Of the roughly 120,000 Iraqis registered at the United Nations' refugee office in Damascus, Syria, some 3,000 of them have been referred for resettlement in the U.S. But their cases are on hold.

Iraqis have to pass a rigorous face-to-face security interview with American officials. The interviewers, from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, are known as "circuit riders" because they have been traveling the refugee circuit — from Jordan to Turkey to Syria.

"It is a firm no certainly for the September circuit ride that was expected," said Arafat Jamal, who is with the U.N. Office for Refugees.

He confirms what Syrian and American officials have been saying for weeks: Syria is not granting entry to U.S. Homeland Security, at least for now.

"At the moment, there are about 3,000 people who have been processed by us and submitted to the United States. The fact that they won't even get to the second step of being interviewed is going to create, I think, some sort of pandemonium," adds Jamal.

So far, the pandemonium is mostly in the volume of e-mails. There are thousands of messages to U.N. officials every day from desperate Iraqis seeking information on their status.

Erica Feller, the U.N.'s assistant high commissioner for refugees, has tried to settle differences between U.S. and Syrian officials but the impasse remains.

"This new situation will contribute to slowing down the process of departure, certainly to the U.S," Feller said.

The refugees are one more source of tensions in U.S. relations with Syria. Damascus had hoped for more recognition for providing a safe haven; more American financial support for 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria, said Syrian Minister Bouthaina Shaaban.

"What Syria asked for — the discussion that was going on – was help with these refugees first," Shaaban said. "The U.S. didn't show any readiness to consider this an urgent subject on the agenda while, for us, it's very urgent."

And there is another sensitive issue: The U.S. government's special consideration for Iraqis who worked for the United States.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, has also raised the alarm over the slow pace of resettlement. He reportedly wants a fast track for Iraqis who worked for the U.S. because they have already passed a rigorous security check when they were hired.

But Syrian officials fume about the special status, the disagreement has put Mohammed Yusef's future on hold.

"I am in danger because I work with the Americans," Yusef said.

He had to keep his work with the U.S. Embassy secret from his family and friends. But when militia men took over his apartment building in Baghdad last June he believed he was a marked man and fled with his family to Damascus.

"I was happy when I worked for them, but now it is too risky and too dangerous; and to be honest with you, I don't want to be a body in a plastic bag. I prefer to stay alive," Yusef said.

Even in Syria Yusef keeps his former association a secret because militia men are also part of the Iraqi community in Syria.

"Even here I don't tell any one that I work with the Americans. They couldn't kill me. But they can hurt my family (I have my parents and I have my brothers) and I have to consider them, he said.

Yusef's extended family is still in Baghdad, which is often a worry for those who have fled, according to the U.N.'s Jamal. But the larger concern is the future.

"The fact that they won't be able now to go the U.S. anytime soon is putting them in an awkward position. They will resort to desperate measures — they will either disappear or get smuggled out of the country or something like that," he said.

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