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Policy Podcast: Iraqi Refugees Update

Ellen Sauerbrey, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration
Washington, DC
October 10, 2007

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Interview by Department Spokesman Sean McCormack

MR. MCCORMACK: Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey, thanks for coming back. You're our first two-time visitor to the Policy Podcast.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SAUERBREY: I'm honored.

MR. MCCORMACK: Let's just start off with getting from you a little bit of an overview of where we stand now with respect to Iraqi refugees. I know we've set out some goals and we came pretty close to hitting the targets. Could you lay out for us right now where we are with respect to the goals and what we might expect over the next, say, six months to a year in terms of the number of refugees actually getting into the U.S.?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SAUERBREY: Sure. Our goals, though, are twofold. And the first goal, of course, is assistance to the larger quantity numbers of refugees that will remain in the region, and I'll come back to that.

But in terms of your question about resettlement, we will resettle 12,000 this year. And I have no doubt that we will make that goal.

MR. MCCORMACK: So this -- this calendar year we'll have about 12,000?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SAUERBREY: Yes. We spent many months putting together a very complicated infrastructure. There are many moving parts in refugee resettlement, including the security clearance process, and getting all the pieces in place -- the diplomatic clearances, training the people that do the screening -- took time to get up and running, but it's running pretty smoothly now. And so I have no doubt that we will easily reach 12,000.

MR. MCCORMACK: Where do we do most of the screening? If you could explain for people a little bit of that infrastructure because I'm not sure if people understand exactly where we're deployed and how we're deployed. Is this happening in Iraq or is it Syria, Jordan, or all of these places?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SAUERBREY: We have not done screening up to now in Iraq because of security issues, both for the standpoint of the Embassy area, of trying to bring in large numbers of people, but also for the security of the refugees who have to remain while the security clearance is going on for a period that could be three to four months of waiting. So our screening has been done in Damascus, in Amman and in -- primarily in Turkey, a few in Egypt and a few --

MR. MCCORMACK: Really, in Turkey as well? I didn't realize that.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SAUERBREY: Actually, the first group that we brought out was screened in Turkey. Now we have a problem because Syria has not been allowing the folks from DHS, Department of Homeland Security, that have to do the screening under law to get in to do it. So from -- as we look forward from now, we're looking at having to do all of the screening in Amman and in Turkey primarily.

MR. MCCORMACK: Let me ask you about the policies of the three countries you've just mentioned -- Turkey, Syria and Jordan -- about letting in Iraqi refugees. I had read about a month ago or so that there were some issues, especially with respect to Syria. Are we still seeing those kinds of issues in terms of those countries letting in people from Iraq?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SAUERBREY: Actually, as of early October, Syria, which was the last country in the region that was allowing the borders to remain open and large number of Iraqis to come into the country, has now sealed its borders. So as we look ahead, there really is no place that Iraqis can go if they are fearful, except to find shelter in another part of Iraq. And a lot of that internal displacement continues to go on.

MR. MCCORMACK: Are we talking to these countries about letting in Iraqis if they have a fear of persecution?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SAUERBREY: That's been from the first visit that I made almost a year ago the first message was to urge the countries to keep the borders open to allow Iraqis to find asylum for that period of time until we succeed in making Iraq a safe and peaceful place that they can return home again.

MR. MCCORMACK: Let me ask you one more question about the region, then I want to turn to the home front here in the United States. There are a lot of Iraqi children who are in these countries, Syria and Jordan and Turkey, who wanted to start the school year. What have we done about that? Have we gotten to the point where we can allow these -- help these kids go to school in these countries?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SAUERBREY: I'm so glad you asked that question because when I was in the region and saw the number of children out of school, this to me was one of the most disturbing problems. And the U.S. worked very hard with Jordan, in particular, to get them to agree to open the public schools to Iraqi children and to appeal to the UN refugee agency to do a very robust appeal, international appeal for education. We were the first to give our $39 million. And just a few weeks ago when school opened, I was very excited to go and visit a school, a public school for girls in Jordan, where 20 percent of the children are Iraqi children.

So there's a long way to go. There are a lot of children that have not come forward. Some of it out of fear that if they identify themselves as a family, that perhaps they'll be sent back to Iraq. And Jordan has certainly been trying to make sure that people understand that's not going to happen.

MR. MCCORMACK: Let me ask you about the home front here. There are a lot of questions about what our responsibilities are to those Iraqis who work for us, whether it's for the military or for the State Department, in Iraq. What are we doing to help change the law so that we can meet our obligations to these people who work for us?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SAUERBREY: Well, we have two ways that those that are affiliated with the U.S. in some way can enter the country: through the refugee program, which of course, is my bureau; or by what is called a special immigrant visa. There actually are now about 800 that have come in on special immigrant visas and, as you know, over 1,600 that have come in through the refugee program.

They are greeted in the United States by a wonderful resettlement program that we have run by voluntary organizations, 365 individual affiliates throughout the country that meet the refugees. And we contract with them to provide initial shelter, household goods, to train new arrivals in the English language, skills training, get them enrolled in -- get the children enrolled in school, and most importantly to get them employed. We're very successful in getting them employed very quickly.

MR. MCCORMACK: Let me ask you one question about internal bureaucratic issues. Recently, I know the Secretary asked you to work with Jim Foley in helping to break down some of the bureaucratic barriers that have arisen that have prevented us really of meeting some of our goals. How are we doing at breaking down some of those bureaucratic walls?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SAUERBREY: They're crumbling.

MR. MCCORMACK: Good.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SAUERBREY: We've been working on them for many, many months and they are crumbling. I think it's fair to say that about four out of five of the outstanding issues we've been able to work between the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State to resolve them. And these are very important things for helping desperate people to be able to find an opportunity for a new life here in the United States.

MR. MCCORMACK: I want to end with one question about your travels in the United States. I understand you're going out to Idaho this week or next week on the refugee issue.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SAUERBREY: Yeah.

MR. MCCORMACK: Tell me a little bit about -- and tell the folks that are listening just a little bit about what you're going to be doing out there.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SAUERBREY: Well, I'm visiting one of our resettlement agencies. In fact, I believe there are actually three in Boise, Idaho or around Boise, Idaho. And there are a number of Iraqis that have been settled there. And I'm really excited because --

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, now, let me ask you one question. How did they end up in Boise, Idaho? It's not the first place that leaps to mind when you're thinking about Iraqi refugees, I think.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SAUERBREY: There's a structured program that as refugees are arriving, and I want to remind you that my bureau will resettle this year over 50,000 refugees from all over the world. And the agencies that we contract with to do the resettlement meet regularly and they make the determinations. Sometimes it's because a refugee has a relative or a friend that they want to be in a particular area. But if that's not the case, then these agencies will look at whether there are, for example, medical needs that need to be met and can be met better in this location than that location.

MR. MCCORMACK: And so you're going to be out in Boise next week.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SAUERBREY: I will be in Boise.

MR. MCCORMACK: And how many people have we -- or are we going to resettle right now in Boise?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SAUERBREY: Well, right now, the number that I'm interested in are the twelve Iraqis that have recently arrived in Boise. One of the twelve is one of our locally employed embassy staff from Baghdad that I had the opportunity to meet last spring when I was in Jordan.

And it is one of the really tragic stories of someone who because of their affiliation with the United States was targeted, his brother was kidnapped and his brother was killed. And it was with great joy that I was able to welcome him in June to the U.S. But we feel such a strong moral obligation and commitment to help these Iraqis that did help us, who stand often bravely next to our troops as interpreters, provide all kinds of services to our embassy. And people often say, you know: "What is our responsibility?" Well, our responsibility is to get them out of harm's way and give them an opportunity to have a new life.

MR. MCCORMACK: Great. Ellen, thanks so much for being a repeat guest and sharing this information and your experiences with us.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SAUERBREY: Well, I'm happy to have this chance.

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