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Insane on asylum

The administration can't or won't admit most Iraqi refugees. Is it incompetence or indifference?

October 04, 2007

Plenty of pious statements have been made over the last year -- many of them by senior Bush administration officials -- about how the United States has a moral obligation to help the more than 2 million refugees who have fled Iraq, most particularly those who have become targets because they worked for the Americans. Credibility with the Iraqi population, in the broader Middle East and around the world will be gauged by whether the U.S. keeps its promises. Now we may judge the administration's performance by the benchmarks it set for itself.

The Bush administration promised to grant refuge to 7,000 Iraqis during this fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30; just 1,608 were admitted. It plans to take in 12,000 in fiscal 2008. (Sweden, which opposed the Iraq war, has already admitted more and plans to resettle 20,000 Iraqis this year alone.)

Why the delays? There are many technicalities, of a pattern that suggests the White House is in no hurry to speed the Iraqis to safety. If he cared to liberate the refugees from their bureaucratic purgatory, President Bush could start with a telephone call to the Department of Homeland Security. On Secretary Michael Chertoff's desk languish a number of proposed fixes, including a plan endorsed by U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and human rights groups to allow asylum seekers to be interviewed via videoconference rather than in face-to-face meetings. Bush could also endorse legislation: A good bill pending in the House would admit 15,000 Iraqi refugees each year through 2011 and allow them to request asylum from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

In the 1990s, President Clinton twice saved refugees with the stroke of a pen, rescuing more than 6,600 U.S.-allied Kurds under attack by Saddam Hussein in northern Iraq and flying them to Guam, where they were granted asylum, and airlifting more than 4,000 Kosovars to Ft. Dix, N.J., for resettlement in this country. It's telling that no such rescue operation is even under discussion today.

Many of the Iraqi refugees are caught in a ongoing nightmare. Even those who have been shot at or kidnapped cannot request asylum in Baghdad. They must make it to another country -- if they can -- before they can petition the U.N. for help, the first step in the process. Yet Iraq's overwhelmed neighbors, Jordan and Syria, are doing their best to keep new refugees out. And Iraqis who are living in limbo in many countries are now overstaying their temporary visas, wondering whether to go underground or return to Iraq.

Meanwhile, Damascus won't give Homeland Security officials visas so that they can interview Iraqis in Syria, where more than a million now reside. The officials are required to interview each applicant, and they want to do it in person, not by video, to make sure they admit no terrorists. Even if the officials can't get into Syria, the U.S. will easily be able to fill this year's quota of 12,000 Iraqis from qualified applicants in Jordan. But that means Iraqis stranded in Syria -- even former U.S. employees -- are out of luck.

The White House may hope that the troop "surge" will succeed in quelling violence to the point where the refugees will go home. Or perhaps it fears that images of airlifts would send the message that the U.S. is "losing" Iraq, or trigger a stampede among the vital Iraqi workers the U.S. still desperately needs. With the historic example of the Palestinians before his eyes, Bush must realize that embittered Iraqi refugees stranded all over the Muslim world would likely feel betrayed by the United States -- and the strain on their host nations could begin a new cycle of misery in the Mideast. If Bush won't end this cynical, heartless and self-defeating U.S. policy of delay, Congress should.

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