- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2007

The State Department said yesterday it will re-examine U.S. policy on the admission of Iraqi refugees, likely leading to a sharp increase in the number it admits each year.

A task force set up by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week also will try to resettle in the United States some Iraqi employees of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, whose lives are in danger because of their work for Americans.

The steps follow sharp criticism from humanitarian organizations and members of Congress, who note that Middle Eastern countries are struggling with a flood of Iraqi refugees while the United States has admitted only 466 since the war began in 2003.

“Clearly, there is a need that exists, and there are problems that need to be addressed,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters, saying it was too early to discuss how many Iraqis the United States can absorb.

“We want to do what is appropriate, what is right under our obligations under the U.N. Charter in providing our fair share of relief for those individuals who have been classified as refugees,” he said.

Supporters of the existing policy have warned that hostile elements such as al Qaeda terrorists might try to enter the United States posing as refugees. Mr. McCormack did not say what steps might be taken to screen the applicants.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a Geneva-based agency that determines who qualifies as a refugee, estimates that at least 1.6 million Iraqis are internally displaced and up to 1.8 million have fled to neighboring countries. Those figures include people displaced before 2003.

“Between January and mid-November 2006, an estimated 425,000 Iraqis fled their homes for other areas inside Iraq, most of them following sectarian violence sparked by the bombing of an important Shia mosque in February 2006,” the UNHCR said last month.

“At midyear, internal displacement was estimated to be continuing at a rate of some 50,000 a month,” it said.

According to UNHCR rules, only those in a foreign country at the time of their application qualify for refugee status. Once the agency grants applicants that status, it starts to look for countries willing to take them in. Most Iraqi refugees are now in Jordan, Syria and Egypt.

Critics of the administration have argued that the United States has a moral responsibility to admit many more Iraqi refugees than the 466 accepted so far because their suffering is directly related to the conditions in Iraq created by the U.S. invasion.

“Washington is spending about $2 billion per week on the war in Iraq, but has barely begun to address the human fallout from the war,” Bill Frelick, refugee-policy director at Human Rights Watch, said last month.

The United States admitted almost 1 million Vietnamese in the years before and after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Many who had worked with U.S. forces were brought to America immediately, while tens of thousands more fled as “boat people” and came to the United States after being processed at camps in the Philippines and elsewhere.

There were no large-scale refugee movements after the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

Mr. McCormack did not agree that the United States has a moral obligation in the case of the Iraqis, saying the plight of those fleeing their homes is a “shared global responsibility.” He also noted that many Iraqis were displaced by Saddam Hussein’s regime before the war.

Congress has mandated that the United States absorb 70,000 refugees this year, and 50,000 of those slots have been allocated among geographic regions. The remaining 20,000 have no specific designation, and the administration plans to use some of those slots to accommodate Iraqis, officials said.

The new task force, which will be chaired by Paula J. Dobriansky, undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs, also will try to help Iraqis working for the U.S. government in Iraq, most of whom have either lost family members or had their lives threatened.

Mr. McCormack said those Iraqis would be granted a “special immigrant visa,” but it was not clear how that would be worked out legally. There are two main tracks for obtaining such a visa — through employment or a family reunion.

In rare circumstances, an applicant can receive what is known as a “genius visa” for exceptional abilities in arts or sciences. Even more seldom, Congress can bestow permanent resident status on someone if it determines that it would be in the U.S. national interest.

Mr. McCormack would not say whether the Iraqis would be offered employment with the government. He cited an existing Pentagon program for Iraqis who have worked for the U.S. military.

“It is allowing people to emigrate to the United States based on meeting a certain set of conditions, the most important of which is some length of service working for the United States government,” he said.

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