A Senate hearing Tuesday called attention to the growing plight of Iraqi refugees. An estimated 100,000 Iraqis are fleeing their violence-wracked nation each month.
On Tuesday, Sami (not his real name), testified before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee, using a screen to protect his identity. He was a translator for the U.S. military in Iraq until he heard that his name had been posted on the walls of mosques, labeling him a traitor. And then came the attack:
"I was in a car traveling through a Mosul neighborhood when a suicide bomber in a car directly behind me blew himself up," Sami said. "I was hit by shrapnel in the face. Bloodied and dazed, I am fortunate to be alive. Following this brush with death, I fled Iraq."
But translators and other Iraqis who have worked for the U.S. are hardly the only ones who have left. According to Kenneth Bacon, who heads the group Refugees International, some 1.7 million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes but remain in Iraq. Another 2 million Iraqis have fled the country, settling mainly in the neighboring states of Jordan and Syria.
"Syria and Jordan have been gracious hosts, but the refugee influx is straining their economies," Bacon said. "The host countries need help, and increasingly, the refugees themselves need direct assistance. The U.N. high commissioner for refugees reports that some Iraqi women are resorting to prostitution to support their families and child labor is becoming an increasing problem."
The U.S. has taken in relatively few Iraqi refugees — just 466 since 2003, according to Ellen Sauerbrey, the assistant Secretary of State who deals with refugee issues.
She said that's because Congress itself tightened entry rules for Iraqis for security reasons. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), suggested the State Department provide services at its embassy in Baghdad to help Iraqis who wish to flee to the U.S.
"The fact that only 400 have been able to make it through our process to be able to come to America... speaks volumes as to the need for us to find a policy that will be more accommodating, so that we can accomplish some of our responsibility here to help those that are in needs," Cardin said.
Sauerbrey responded that the State Department is trying, but that it is hard:
"I have to tell you it is a very difficult issue to try to figure out how to do this — within Iraq, within the Green Zone, within the embassy — how to do this," she said. "It does not have an easy solution."
The U.S. does have a program to give visas to a small number of translators and others who have helped the U.S. But so far, only 50 have been granted. Lawmakers want to increase that number.
Democrats also are critical of the administration's $20 million request for Iraq refugee assistance. Sen. Kennedy says the administration should seek a higher amount when it submits its supplemental budget request next month.