U.S. Accused of Poor Help for Iraqi Refugees

The flow of refugees from the war in Iraq is becoming a humanitarian crisis. Thousands have applied for refugee status in the U.S., but only a trickle has arrived. Critics weigh the moral obligations the United States may have toward displaced Iraqis, especially those who worked with the invading force.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And I'm Deborah Amos.

This week we're telling the stories of people who've been forced to flee Iraq because of the war. Listen to Mohammed Yusef(ph), who has given up hope. He fled his country in June.

Mr. MOHAMMED YUSEF (Iraqi Refugee): And to be honest with you, I don't want to be a body in a plastic bag. I prefer to stay alive.

AMOS: And Alam al-Jabori(ph); she wants to live anywhere else but Iraq.

Ms. ALAM AL-JABORI (Iraqi Refugee): Something broken inside me. I don't know what, but something broken. Iraqis force you from your own kin, from your own brood. It's broke my heart.

AMOS: Al-Jabori and Yusef are two refugees I met among the over two million Iraqis who settled in Syria and Jordan. But settled isn't quite accurate. They're running out of money. They're not allowed to work. Their children often don't go to school. Thousands have registered with the United Nations to resettle somewhere else. Many hoped to come to the United States, and the U.S. has pledged to take them - some of them.

Mr. PAUL ROSENZWEIG (Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, U.S. Department of Homeland Security): I think that the United States policy of admitting Iraqi refugees is an amazingly generous one. We will accept 12,000 refugees from Iraq next year.

AMOS: That's one of the U.S. government officials dealing with U.S. policy for Iraqi refugees. We'll hear more from him in a moment. But this is a debate and there's always another side. A refugee advocate says the U.S. isn't doing enough.

Mr. MICHAEL KOCHER (Middle East Regional Director, International Rescue Committee): The U.S. rhetoric has vastly exceeded its actions here. Generally, I think the administration and Congress can be characterized as being in a willful state of denial.

AMOS: Michael Kocher is with the International Rescue Committee. The numbers, he says, are not in dispute. About two million Iraqis have fled their countries since the war began and less than 2,000 have been resettled in the U.S. in the last year. What is in dispute is how many Iraqis should be allowed into the United States - how many and how soon.

Here's Michael Kocher again.

Mr. KOCHER: I think that things have been very slow moving. I think that has been in part because of logistics, but I think in part it shows a lack of political will.

AMOS: I have heard many refugee organizations say lack of political will. That's such an amorphous term. I wonder if you can be a little bit more specific about that.

Mr. KOCHER: It's politically inconvenient for the administration and Congress to fully acknowledge the scale of this crisis. Because if you begin to admit what is clear to all to see, that you have a massive humanitarian crisis, then some of your policies may not be working as quickly as one hopes. But I think it's important to divorce the politics from the humanitarian here. The numbers are clear. People are in dire need and very little is being done about it, frankly.

AMOS: Some members of Congress do want the Bush administration to move faster, especially for the interpreters who risk their lives working for the United States in Iraq. But the government official you heard earlier, Paul Rosenzweig of the Department of Homeland Security, says it's not that simple. Iraqis, he says, must be screened more carefully than any other group.

Mr. ROSENZWEIG: The Iraqi refugees pose a special problem. They also pose a special risk. And we're going to have to address both sides of that equation.

AMOS: Why that? Why are Iraqis considered different?

Mr. ROSENZWEIG: Why are Iraqis different than Burmese?

AMOS: Or Egyptians or Pakistanis...

Mr. ROSENZWEIG: Well, I...

AMOS: ...or Afghans or...

Mr. ROSENZWEIG: I think refugees from Iraq are a particular concern precisely because Iraq is the venue for an ongoing war. It is, I guess, plausible that al-Qaida might seek to infiltrate the United States through the Burmese refugee program, but it's exceedingly unlikely. By contrast, the likelihood of al-Qaida or al-Qaida sympathizers seeking to infiltrate the United States through the Iraq refugee program is remarkably higher.

AMOS: Even within the U.S. government, there's been disagreement and finger-pointing about the screening of Iraqis. The Department of Homeland Security must screen people. The question is whether it can do it faster.

The U.S. ambassador in Iraq thinks it can. Ambassador Ryan Crocker wrote an angry cable that was leaked to The Washington Post. Crocker blamed the Department of Homeland Security for slowing the resettlement of refugees. Paul Rosenzweig of Homeland Security disagrees rather strongly.

Mr. ROSENZWEIG: Ambassador Crocker is unequivocally, absolutely wrong. I can assure you categorically that the security checks that the Department of Homeland Security has added are not accounting for any delay whatsoever.

AMOS: Remember, he says, the DHS is screening Iraqis to make sure they do no harm to Americans. And he says most people should be able to understand that.

Mr. ROSENZWEIG: Everyone agrees that security procedures are important and they must be followed.

AMOS: Again, Michael Kocher of the International Rescue Committee.

Mr. KOCHER: But they should not be used as a fig leaf or an excuse. For example, those having worked for the U.S. military - translators, interpreters - have already been subject to security clearance before they got those jobs. And many Iraqi refugees, lest we forget, are single women with very young children, for example. They present very, very little security risk, if any.

AMOS: You hear administration officials who are grappling with this policy say resettlement of Iraqis is never going to answer the question of more than two million Iraqis who fled their country. The answer, of course, is a peaceful and stable Iraq.

Mr. KOCHER: I do not argue with that sentiment at all. Refugee resettlement is not a solution for this vast number of people, but I think it has to be part of a solution. And it's very imperative that the U.S. step up and show leadership on this.

AMOS: And here's how refugee advocates want the United States to lead: to take in as many refugees as it can, more than it has already pledged to do, to send money and aid to Jordan and Syria, the uncomfortable hosts for most of the Iraqi refugees. Those countries are struggling with health care, school, housing, with very little outside help. And refugee advocates say the U.S. has a special obligation to the Iraqis. I asked Paul Rosenzweig, the American policy official, if there is a greater responsibility.

Mr. ROSENZWEIG: I'm not sure it's useful to think about whether or not that our moral responsibility is even greater in Iraq. I think we have a high moral responsibility to refugees in Burma, in Darfur, and in Iraq.

AMOS: You think all those situations are equal, even despite the fact that Iraq is a different case simply because there are, you know, more than 130,000 U.S. troops there.

Mr. ROSENZWEIG: I don't think they're inter-comparable. If you've seen video of the camps in Burma and the people who've live there, you know, I personally am just not in a position to say that that person is less deserving or more deserving than an Iraqi refugee.

AMOS: One of those Iraqi refugees is Ali Jabber(ph). We heard from him yesterday on this program. He served as an interpreter for U.S. troops. He's now in Jordan, waiting for an answer from the United States.

Mr. ALI JABBER (Interpreter): I can't do anything, you know. I don't have permission to work, so I got tired of this place, you know. I just want to get out of here.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You can listen to all of Deb Amos's series on refugees from Iraq at npr.org.

But Deb, we can't quite leave the series here because of this number from the United Nations saying that every month an estimated 60,000 more Iraqis - now 60,000 more - are forced from their homes inside Iraq. What happens to them?

AMOS: Steve, until this month about 30,000 of those refugees crossed the border into Syria. That was the safe haven. But this month the Syrians effectively closed that border by requiring visas which are almost impossible to get. So that means those 60,000 now have no place to go outside the country.

Jordan has also closed its border, so has Saudi Arabia. So they are internally displaced. Many of the southern provinces in Iraq actually will not let Iraqis come there unless they can prove they have family. So it's unclear what's going to happen.

INSKEEP: So it's almost as if borders are now closing inside the country even.

AMOS: Inside and outside. So people are really stuck.

INSKEEP: And we've got a total. We've said two million or more than two million refugees. But if you count people inside the country, we're talking about more than twice that, right?

AMOS: More than twice that, somewhere around four and a half million.

INSKEEP: Okay. We'll continue covering the story as we learn more about refugees inside and outside Iraq. And just - we should mention here also the United Nations mentions where some of the people who have escaped the country have ended up. Germany, Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden have all admitted more refugees from Iraq than the United States.

This is NPR News.

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