Iraqi Refugees: Has There Been a Breakthrough?

It seems there has been a major breakthrough in processing Iraqi refugees in Syria. The important news is that Damascus recently agreed to allow American interviewers into the country to screen the Iraqis for admission to the United States.

For the better part of the year, Damascus and Washington have been at logger-heads over how to process Iraqi refugees headed for the US. Damascus insisted that the US accept UNHCR processed refugees and take from the top of the internationally certified list.

Washington insisted that its special agents be allowed into Damascus to interview and choose which Iraqis would get US refugee status. The primary reason for this, I was told, is that the US wants to give priority to those Iraqis who worked for the US, such as translators, etc. Syria did not want to give the US special status because of bad US-Sy relations and did not want to reward Iraqi "collaborators."

This dispute now seems to be resolved in Washington's favor. Hopefully, we will see Iraqis begin to be processed at a speedier rate. It seems clear, however, that this dispute was not the main reason for so few Iraqis based in Syria getting into America. Iraqi refugees based in Jordan and elsewhere are not getting processed and into the States any faster. The bottleneck is in Washington.

Homeland security is establishing its own set of criteria for clearing Iraqis, which is different than that established by the UNHCR. Homeland Security does not have processing systems in place and is only beginning to establish permanent offices in Jordan or Syria. A whole new redundant bureaucracy is being established. The US is becoming the land of red-tape and silly procedures. Is Yankee ingenuity and can-doism dead? It would seem so.

There is great pressure in Washington not to open the taps to Iraqi refugees. Daniel Pipes and other anti-Arab aggitators have long saught to stem the immigration of Muslims and Arabs into the US for fear that "Islamofascists," as they call them, will establish greater electoral and lobbying might in US politics. They have long believed that Europe is "occupied territory" and do not want the US to be taken hostage by the forces of evil and Jihadism.

2007 Iraqi Refugee Admissions: An Overview (This info is from Human Rights First)

  • Total number of Iraqi refugees admitted in the 2007 fiscal year: 1,608
  • Of these, number referred by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees: 1,510
  • Number referred by a U.S. embassy program for Iraqi employees: 98
  • Special immigrant visas issued to translators and their family members: 820

The administration's Iraqi admissions goal for next year: 12,000

Country of origin of the 1,608 Iraqis resettled in 2007






Other Countries







Number of DHS circuit rides in FY07 by country











The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) interviews each refugee referred to the US program. DHS does not have permanent staff in the region. Teams of four to six DHS officers visit the region for several weeks at a time on "circuit rides" to interview refugees.

Too Many Without Protection

The United States initially committed to accepting 7,000 refugee referrals from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). By June of 2007, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had referred more than 8,000 Iraqis to the US refugee admissions program.

By the end of the fiscal year, Sept 30 2007, the US admitted only 1,608 of these Iraqis. The individuals referred by the UN include, among other categories, victims of torture and detention, individuals at risk of deportation from Jordan or Syria, and orphaned children. Put simply, these 8,000 Iraqis were all considered in urgent need of resettlement and protection. Delays can have devastating consequences for their lives.

The U.S. has failed to yet bring to safety more than 6,000 refugees whose cases have been fully its responsibility since June.

Emergency Visas Unused

In 2007 the United States had an unallocated reserve of 20,000 refugee admissions slots, to be used in response to unforeseen refugee crises. On April 17th, at a UN conference in Geneva, the State Department Official in charge of refugees suggested these visas could be used for Iraqis.

… 20,000 was an unallocated number to be used wherever needed. So I think it is fair to say that if we get the referrals we could resettle up to 25,000 Iraqi refugees within the President's determination this year.
Assistant Secretary Ellen Sauerbrey

These 20,000 admissions slots went unused this year.

Iraqi refugees: A lot of talk, little action
ReliefWeb (press release), Switzerland

The US must engage at all levels with the countries of the region, including Syria, and must also lead donor efforts to provide bilateral and multilateral …

Four Thousand Iraqi refugees in Syria have applied for resettlement in the United States

Damascus recently agreed to allow American interviewers into the country to screen the Iraqis for admission to the United States. The move followed a visit here last month by senior U.S. envoys James Foley and Lori Scialabba, a top immigration official with Homeland Security.

The U.S. plans to admit 12,000 refugees from different Middle Eastern countries in a year's time. But only 450 were let in last month — less than half the monthly average needed to reach the target.

Jolles said the U.S. interviewers will see 7,000 Iraqi refugees registered by his office. But it's up to the interviewers how many they would accept for resettlement. Already, several hundred have been given permission to resettle in Finland, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia.

Syria, U.S. Agree on Processing Iraqi Refugees
The New York Times – 11/8/2007

Iraqi Refugees in Arizona
The Washington Post – 11/8/2007

U.S. Falls Short of Iraqi Refugees Goal
AP – 11/1/2007

An Iraqi Blogger in Syria
One of the most moving, astute, and unique chroniclers of the Iraq war has been an anonymous Iraqi woman who blogs under the name "Baghdad Burning." She has quite a following, and a collection of her posts has been published in the U.S. On April 26th, she announced she was leaving Iraq. I've been following her blog for quite some time so it was almost a physical shock hearing this. She … continued

Comments (7)

idaf said:

More on the Iraqi refugees in Syria..

The Economist: Iraq and Syria: The plight of the refugees
Syria has taken in the lion’s share of Iraq’s refugees, about 1.5m of them, of whom well over half are probably Sunni, some 15% Shia and maybe 10% Christian. Jordan is thought to account for another 600,000 or so, but no one knows exactly. The Syrian survey will assess the needs of the refugees—and their effect on the host country, which has 19m of its own citizens. Many refugees are running out of savings, slipping into poverty, sometimes into crime and prostitution.

AFP: UN spotlights ‘survival sex’ among Iraqi women refugees
UNITED NATIONS (AFP) — A UN official on Tuesday underscored the growing problem of “survival sex” among Iraqi women refugees as advocates pressed the world community to help share the burden of sheltering those who have fled the war in Iraq.

Erika Feller, an assistant high commissioner for protection at the UN refugee agency UNHCR, said attention must be paid to the plight of women refugees in countries neighboring Iraq, particularly Syria.

Feller, who recently visited Syria, singled out the resurgence of problems such as “weekend marriages,” a euphemism for prostitution.

Families make available young girls for “a traditional marriage ceremony” for the weekend to men who are prepared to pay and “the divorce takes place on Sunday in accordance to traditional practices,” she explained.
While Syria has been “a very generous country” in accepting Iraqi refugees, Feller noted that other countries are increasingly placing restrictions on their entry.

November 15th, 2007, 6:02 pm


idaf said:

And this is an interesting perspective of the Syrian-Iranian relationship…

Pilgrims’ progress
Al-Jazeera English
By Jane Dutton in Sit Ruqiya, Damascus

An estimated 8,000 Iranian Shia pilgrims pour into Syria every day, usually arriving in busloads into the capital, Damascus and their numbers are steadily growing.

Some of them travel for up to five days to arrive at Sit Ruqiya, one of Syria’s holiest Shia shrines.

Crossing the border, these pilgrims bring their faith, their culture and their money.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Ahmed, a Syrian street trader, said: “The pilgrims started coming here in the 1980s. My business has improved. I learned Farsi, and the customers just keep on coming.”

In the past five years, Iran and other Shia communities around the world have pumped millions of dollars into the reconstruction of half a dozen Shia holy sites in Syria.

And Sit Ruqiya is one that has gone from humble beginnings to being one of the largest shrines in Damascus.

Sound economics
Many believe that this cultural crossover with the Iranians is fostering yet another symbiotic relationship and it is that of big business.

Al Jazeera visited the Sham Factory – a joint Syrian-Iranian project on the outskirts of Damascus and one of the first and biggest ventures yet.

Established in March this year, the factory aims to produce 40 cars per day off its assembly line, when the factory reaches full capacity, which it nearly has.

The final product is a Syrian car with a distinctly Iranian flavour.

On the ground, entrepreneurs are hoping the expanding markets will provide them with more business opportunities.

Sayyd Razi Vahedi is an Iranian businessman who works closely with his Syrian counterpart to make such opportunities happen.

“The trade and economic relationship between Syria and Iran is improving and we hope that this relationship will continue to grow stronger and stronger,” he told Al Jazeera.

Syria is hoping that Iran will pull it out of its decades-long recession – a situation seen by many as the reason behind many Syrians leaving the country.

UNDP says 15 million Syrians are living outside the country – a staggering number considering only 17 million people reside in Syria.

Strange allies
Bringing Syria and Iran together is the US-imposed isolation.

They are unlikely allies today with differing religions, economies and political ideologies, though some neighbours view the relationship with suspicion.

“Obviously there is awareness in Iran and Syria that they need to do more especially because the two countries are relatively isolated,” Jihad Yawing, an economic analyst, said.

“We are very happy with this relationship and we will expand it both politically and economically. That’s a fact of life in the Middle East today,” Abdullah Dardari, Syria’s deputy minister for economic affairs, said.

“But to say that Iran is using Syria as a foray into the Arab region is putting too much politics into this economic relationship,” he told Al Jazeera.

All eyes remain fixed on Syria and Iran to see how far this long-standing courtship will go.

It is a highly charged subject for the region, but for both countries, at the moment, it seems to make perfect business sense.

The question now is whether economics preserve this political relationship in the face of increasing international pressure.

November 15th, 2007, 6:08 pm


abraham said:

Israel should be forced to accept most of the refugees since this war was at their instigation. You want a war, you deal with the consequences.

At least the US is finally now (after 4.5 years) owning up to its responsibility.

November 15th, 2007, 8:26 pm


Observer said:

This is a clear lesson for the people of the region that the US in NOT a reliable ally. 4500 out of 4.4 million is a shame. If Syria and Jordan return the refugees to Iraq, this will be a threat to Maliki as most are Sunnis; this is already happening. Maliki just accepted 18 000 Shia into the army and hence is moving to fill the army with loyalists after finishing doing so with the police, this will revive the civil war anew after the surge is over. This a new ME but completely different from the planned ME that the administration and the neo cons and their Israeli allies anticipated. The US is riding a tiger in Pakistan and is about to do the same in the ME. Watch out what you wish for you may get it.

November 16th, 2007, 1:35 am


Torstein said:

Isn’t this the same policy the US follows all over the world? If memory serves me correctly, the US reserves the right to pick their own refugees and do not accept the UNHCR refugees without screening. They are normally accused of only accepting those actually bringing something into the country, such as highly-educated refugees etc. The ones “most in need” as deemed by the UN, are not the ones going to contribute to the economy after all.

November 16th, 2007, 11:19 am


Observer said:

The latest numbers of Iraqis deaths from the invasion

November 16th, 2007, 2:15 pm


jbello said:

I think it is pretty interesting that the US keeps complaining about Syria’s failure to effectively police it’s border with Iraq. We can’t seal our own border with Mexico even in good times. How is a much smaller country like Syria going to seal a border that is a significant portion of it’s entire land border in a situation where they have more than 1.5 million refugees from a war raging on the other side. We ought to be thanking them for their benevolence in assisting the refugees and cooperating any way we can in that effort.

November 19th, 2007, 8:29 pm


Post a comment

Neoprofit AI