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Report Examines Progress, Problems with U.S. Government's Efforts to Help Iraqi Refugees

April 28, 2009
4:36 PM

CONTACT: Human Rights First
Brenda Bowser Soder
(202) 379-3323 – direct, (301) 906-4460 – cell

Human Rights First Estimates Nearly 150,000 Iraqis Have U.S. Ties

WASHINGTON - April 28 - Only 4,200 Iraqis with U.S. ties have made it to the United States since 2003, though at least 20,000 have applied, and the number of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis may be as high as 146,000, according to a new report issued today by a leading human rights group.

The report, Promises to the Persecuted: The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2008, issued by Human Rights First, examines implementation of this critical legislation. It finds that, despite a Congressional mandate intended to expedite Iraqi refugee processing times, only a small portion of eligible Iraqis have been granted a safe haven in the United States. Based on its findings, Human Rights First urged the Obama administration to examine this issue and clear remaining bureaucratic obstacles to fulfilling America's promise to persecuted Iraqis who worked with the United States in Iraq, as well as to their families.

"Progress has been made since the enactment of the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act in January 2008, but it's not enough. Processing times are unacceptably long, and Iraqis seeking safety in the United States can wait a year or more for their applications to move through the system," says Human Rights First's Ruthie Epstein, who authored the report. "We pin the delays on two problems - inadequate staffing and inefficient security clearance procedures. The result is that thousands of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis are stuck in Iraq and other countries in the region, facing danger and destitution. The absence of direct access to the U.S. refugee program in Syria and Turkey, where the need is significant, exacerbates the problem."

According to the report, U.S. officials successfully established processing for U.S.-affiliated Iraqis under an administration that was reluctant to acknowledge the refugee crisis and in the face of significant logistic and security challenges. But the multi-agency programs are still plagued with procedural barriers.

"In February at Camp Lejeune, President Obama made a commitment to Iraqi refugees. He declared, rightly so, that the United States has a strategic interest and a moral responsibility to act," noted Amelia Templeton, a refugee policy analyst at Human Rights First. "His commitment should begin with a comprehensive evaluation and improvement of the programs designed to provide escape to the very Iraqis who helped the United States."

Human Rights First's recommendations to the U.S. government include:

  • Reduce Processing Times: The State Department should increase staffing at the Embassy in Baghdad and the International Organization of Migration, and the Department of Homeland Security should increase the frequency and staffing of circuit rides to the region, so that the refugee applications of thousands of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis and their families facing danger can be processed expeditiously; the Embassy should allocate the space in the building that is necessary for these increases;
  • Improve the Security Clearance Process: The White House should review and improve the multi-agency security clearance process required for Iraqi refugee applicants and other immigrants and refugees so that Iraqis who meet all of the requirements for admission to the United States do not wait indefinitely for final answers on their applications;
  • Expand Access to Iraqis in Need: The State Department and the White House should press the governments of Syria and Turkey at senior levels to permit direct access to the U.S. refugee program to vulnerable Iraqis in need; and
  • Ensure Post-Arrival Services: Congress should appropriate the necessary funding to the Department of Health and Human Services to adequately support post-arrival services for Iraqi refugees and other new refugee populations to whom the United States has offered safety from persecution, as well as to the State Department to increase staffing on programs mandated by the legislation.

Today's report provides the most reliable public estimate to date of the number of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis who might be eligible for the programs mandated by the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act. Human Rights First has estimated that there are approximately 146,000 U.S.-affiliated Iraqis - Embassy direct hires, contractors, and employees of U.S.-based media and NGOs. This figure does not include spouses and children. The report says that no more than 4,200 U.S-affiliated Iraqis, including some family members, have actually made it to the United States.

The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act was first proposed by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and former Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR) in June 2007 to address the plight of Iraq's refugees. Its mandate included special immigration visas for Iraqis who worked with the U.S. government, military, or contractors for at least a year; direct access to the U.S. refugee resettlement programs for Iraqis who worked with the U.S. government, military, contractors, or U.S.-based media or nongovernmental organizations, and certain minority groups; and refugee processing inside Iraq.

To read Human Rights First's report and its complete recommendations to the U.S. government, visit

Human Rights First is a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization based in New York and Washington D.C. Human Rights First believes that building respect for human rights and the rule of law will help ensure the dignity to which every individual is entitled and will stem tyranny, extremism, intolerance, and violence.

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