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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

06 March 2007

Iraqis Being Processed for Refugee Status

"There's no cap or quota on compassion," State's top refugee official says

Washington -- Processing of Iraqi refugees for resettlement already has begun, the State Department's top refugee policy official says.

Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, says the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered about 80,000 displaced Iraqis, including in Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt.  Sauerbrey told USINFO March 1 that the United States has received the first UNHCR referrals.

Sauerbrey said the UNHCR registers people and refers them according to internationally recognized standards of who is a refugee, specifically people who have a "well-founded fear of persecution if they were to return."

The United States worked with UNHCR to set a series of criteria for referral, because "the ones who we feel are appropriate for resettlement are people who have the greatest vulnerabilities," Sauerbrey said.  Those include people with medical needs, the elderly who no longer have any support system, and ethnic and religious minorities.

Also eligible are people who may be in danger because they worked with the U.S. government:  "Iraqis who have tried to help us in the process of bringing peace and stability to their country, but by associating with us, have put themselves at unique … risk, who may never be able to go home, for various reasons," Sauerbrey said.  Of the nearly 2 million people who are displaced outside of Iraq, the United States is identifying the most vulnerable for resettlement, she added.

Once they are referred to the U.S. refugee program by UNHCR, a U.S. Embassy, or qualified nongovernmental agency (NGO), applicants are interviewed by the Citizenship and Immigration Service (CIS) of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for security background checks, Sauerbrey said.  CIS teams are already in the region interviewing the first of the referrals.  As UNHCR refers more people to the U.S. government as refugees, more CIS teams will be dispatched, Sauerbrey said.

"CIS adjudicates each person, individually, to determine that they pose no security risk to the United States, and … that they are a genuine refugee," Sauerbrey said.  Security screening in a conflict zone like Iraq is not a quick process, she added. After the security review, refugees undergo medical screening and cultural orientation before traveling. The entire process can take several months.

Over the next nine months, UNHCR expects to refer 7,000 Iraqis to the U.S. resettlement program, Sauerbrey said.  The referrals will be staggered over several months.  After passing security and medical checks, she expects two thousand to three thousand Iraqi refugees to arrive in the United States by the end of September.  The process will continue, she stressed, with additional referrals being screened by the CIS teams.

"There’s no cap or quota on compassion.  There’s no limit on the number of refugees that we will consider for resettlement," Sauerbrey said.

Because the percentage of people who will be resettled finally is small, "the most important thing is creating a safe and stable Iraq, which President Bush is certainly committed to, and working very hard, so that people who are displaced will … be able to go back to their homes," she said.

"They’re looking for the opportunity to return in peace and dignity.  So that’s goal number one," she said. The second goal, she said, is to ensure that surrounding countries that have generously hosted Iraqi refugees keep their borders open, refrain from sending Iraqis back against their will and provide access to social services.

On February 5, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the creation of a task force to aid Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons.  Several State Department bureaus, the Department of Health and Human Services and the United States Agency for International Development are members of the task force that will coordinate efforts with other U.S. agencies.  (See related article.)

"We’ve committed $18 million toward UNHCR’s $60 million appeal" for Iraqi refugees, which means that the United States is providing 30 percent of the funding, Sauerbrey said.  "That’s on top of what we normally do for UNHCR in a given year, which is usually in the range of $300 million," she added.  In the prior two fiscal years, the United States has given $43 million for Iraqi refugee assistance, she said, adding that the U.S. commitment to Iraqi refugees has been ongoing.

The task force will fund programs in the countries hosting displaced Iraqis through the UNHCR and NGOs to prevent social services networks from collapsing because of the huge influx of Iraqis. This may include building classrooms, medical facilities and housing.

"The focus is on building the capacity, helping the host countries to increase the capacity to be able to address the needs of the refugees," Sauerbrey said.

The assistant secretary said her priorities are to create the conditions for people to go home, assist Iraqis where they have sought refuge and resettle those who cannot return safely to Iraq in the United States or other countries.

See also "East Germany Visit Sparked State Official's Political Activism."

For more information on U.S. policies, see Iraq Update.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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