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Iraqi Refugees

Samuel Witten, Acting Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration
Remarks to Refugee Council USA Forum
The George Washington University, Washington, DC
April 14, 2008

Samuel Witten, Acting Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration, delivered the following remarks on April 14, 2008 at a forum held at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Refugee Council USA organized the forum, which focused on Iraqi refugees.

Thank you for inviting me here today to speak at this important forum. The Iraqi refugee crisis has many different facets that have been discussed already in this forum and in the public over the last few months. I know time is brief, and there will be questions, so I will concentrate on the most recent developments relating to assistance for Iraqi refugees.

The protection of refugees is of course a primary goal of the United States. As most of you know, we pursue what we call “durable solutions” to refugee crises around the world. They are, first and foremost, creating an environment enabling refugees to return home once it is safe to do so; second, in appropriate circumstances helping refugees integrate into the societies where they have moved; and third, resettlement to a third country such as the United States. While resettlement of vulnerable members of a refugee population is an important part of the solution, as is typical in refugee situations throughout the world the vast majority of the population will not be resettled, but will need assistance in place in the interim and hopefully voluntarily return in safety and dignity to their country of origin as soon as conditions permit.

Turning specifically to Iraqi refugees, while there had been many displaced Iraqis in the region from the Saddam era, the recent large wave of displacement of vulnerable Iraqis began after the Samarra bombing in February 2006. After the Samarra bombing and the increase in factional violence, refugee flows dramatically increased, especially from Baghdad. Most Iraqi refugees went to Syria and Jordan, countries that have been generous in accommodating these new arrivals. I would like to make some brief observations about the refugee situation.

First, it remains uncertain how long these Iraqis will need to stay in Syria, Jordan, and other neighboring countries. Ideally, conditions in Iraq will improve soon permitting substantial voluntary returns in the near future.

In the meantime, the U.S. response to the Iraqi refugee situation will continue to have several key primary goals – first and foremost, the U.S. is doing everything possible to enable the Iraqi government to establish the conditions that will enable Iraqis to return. Security and stability inside Iraq are the most important factors for the largest number of Iraqis. Second, we will continue to expand international and bilateral assistance to those Iraqis who are displaced, and offer the possibility of resettlement for the most vulnerable who wish to be considered for resettlement.

With respect to assistance, known and anticipated international appeals for assistance to those displaced outside and inside of Iraq will total some $900 million for 2008. Thus far this year, the United States has responded by making available $208 million and has plans for another $70 million in assistance.

The vast majority of our assistance to Iraqi refugees is provided directly to UNHCR and other international organizations who work in partnership with host governments. We also are funding several NGOs, such as the International Medical Corps, to help them deliver essential health, education and humanitarian assistance services to Iraqis inside and outside Iraq. We will fund additional NGO projects in the next two to three months.

These contributions in 2008 build on earlier U.S. Government contributions. In 2007, State and USAID programmed more than $171 million to assist displaced Iraqis. We recognized that Iraqi refugees had pressing needs in the areas of education and health, and a large amount of that money went to help build or rehabilitate health clinics in Jordan and Syria, and to increase and train the number of teachers at schools in those countries.

We are hoping to make additional financial contributions later this year and are awaiting Congressional action on our request for supplemental funding. U.S. assistance levels to Iraq are higher than the U.S. Government’s traditional percentage contributions to international organizations, but we believe these higher levels are appropriate for the United States under these circumstances.

In addition, we are engaged in an extensive diplomatic dialogue with other countries, most notably with the Government of Iraq itself, which in our view should contribute substantially to assist this population. Ambassador Jim Foley, the Secretary’s Senior Coordinator for Iraqi Refugees, just returned from a far-reaching trip to the Middle East and Europe, in which he sought greater international assistance for Iraqi refugees to complement what the United States is doing. While the U.S. has funded international appeals at levels higher than any other donor, we think the crisis should also be addressed robustly by Iraq itself and the many other potential donors.

Turning to resettlement, we now have refugee resettlement operations up and running in all of the locations outside Iraq where there are substantial numbers of displaced Iraqis, something that didn’t exist a year ago. We are working with the International Organization for Migration in Damascus, Amman, and Cairo, and with the International Catholic Migration Commission in Beirut and Istanbul. As I think all of you know, we had a difficult start in Syria, where most of the Iraqi refugees are located, with the Government of Syria denying entry visas for Department of Homeland Security adjudicators for most of the second half of 2007. As a result we couldn’t interview vulnerable Iraqis in Syria who were seeking resettlement. We now have a processing operation up and running in Damascus, and we are hoping for continued and even greater cooperation from the Government of Syria, so that our resettlement program can reach its full potential.

Despite the challenges, we have succeeded in establishing refugee processing operations in the key capitals outside Iraq. In March, we resettled 751 Iraqis through our refugee admissions program. Thus far this fiscal year, we have admitted 2,889 Iraqis as refugees. Together with the figures from last year, as of last week we have admitted 4,497 Iraqis through our refugee admissions program. We have also admitted to the U.S. well over a thousand special immigrant visa recipients and their family members. So the number of Iraqis who have come under either mechanism in the U.S. as of last week well exceeds 5,500.

Because of a robust schedule of DHS interviews of refugee applicants in recent months, and because Syria has for the last few months permitted DHS adjudicators to enter the country to interview applicants, we believe we are on the path to admit 12,000 Iraqis to the United States as refugees this fiscal year. About 5,000 additional applicants have already been approved and are in the final stages of processing, and DHS is on pace to interview another 8,000 applicants in the region this current quarter – from April 1 through June 30. As a result, although I’m not in a position to guarantee a particular number by the end of the fiscal year, I am cautiously optimistic that we can reach the 12,000 goal. Much will in the end depend on factors such as Syria’s continued, and ideally improved, cooperation in permitting refugee processing on its territory, the level of USCIS approvals, the granting of exemptions as appropriate to Iraqis who fall under the material support category, and also how many Iraqis apply to the U.S. for resettlement but in the end do not pursue their applications.

Finally, apart from these specific assistance and resettlement efforts, I will mention very briefly the outcomes of some of our diplomatic efforts with respect to refugees in place in these countries, which we have undertaken often in partnership with the United Nations and other governments. First, we are pleased that Jordan last year lifted restrictions that prevented Iraqi children lacking residency documentation from attending public school. We have confidence Jordan will continue the same policy this coming academic year. Second, both Jordan and Syria have made firm commitments to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that they would not arbitrarily send Iraqi refugees home. Third, Lebanon has permitted all Iraqis registered with UNHCR to remain in the country on renewable visas.

I will stop here and will be happy to take any questions. Thank you.


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