US criticized for limiting Iraqi refugee intake to 500


Thu, Jan 04, 2007 - Page 7

Humanitarian groups have criticized the US administration for failing to pull its weight in providing for up to 3 million Iraqis displaced from their homes, with the official quota for Iraqi refugees to be allowed into the US this year standing at just 500.

Aid organizations report a rapidly mounting crisis of refugees inside Iraq and in neighboring countries, as thousands flee sectarian violence every day.

The UN estimates that there are more than 1.5 million Iraqis displaced within the country and a similar number living as refugees in Jordan, Syria and elsewhere.

The US administration laid down the quota of 500 Iraqi refugees for this year last September.

It has a further 20,000 refugee places that are unspecified and could be allocated to Iraqis, but the administration has failed to provide funds even to meet its identified program of 50,000 refugees from specific regions for this year.

Robert Carey, head of resettlement at the New York-based International Rescue Committee, said that a long-term refugee crisis was being created, with many of those fleeing so traumatized that they had vowed never to return to Iraq.

In recent years the US has come to rely increasingly on the UN refugee body, the UNHCR, for work on the ground screening and referring families for possible relocation to the US.

But the UNHCR is itself depleted of staff on the ground within Iraq and the agency is suffering from lack of funds. The budget for its Iraq program is now US$29 million, far below the US$150 million allocated at the start of the invasion in 2003. Within that budget, the UNHCR can spend just US$1 per person on the 800,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria.

With several donor countries to the UN running behind in their payments to the agency, there are fears that the UNHCR's budget may fall even further, to as little as US$15 million a year.

"The number of refugees America is planning to take this year from Iraq is anaemic and unacceptable," said Joseph Kassab, head of the Chaldean Foundation of America, which represents up to 500,000 Christian Iraqis living in the US.

He added that 140,000 Iraqi Christians had fled to neighboring countries in what was fast becoming a mass exodus.

The aid group Refugees International recently called on the administration of US President George W. Bush to increase its 25 percent of UNHCR funding. Some critics suspect that any decisive action is frowned upon within the White House as it could be construed as a sign of failure in the president's strategy towards the insurgency.

Since the attacks on the US on September 11 2001, security restrictions have also been placed on refugees, particularly on those from the Middle East. Carey said a significant rise in Iraqis taken into the US could only be achieved with a dramatic increase in the number of immigration officials screening applicants in the region.