Thousands of Iraqis, many hunted as traitors because they assisted America’s war effort, are finding the bridge to safety blocked. Their admission to the United States as refugees is being delayed by a tortuous application process and lumbering bureaucratic reviews.
This latest failure was detailed in a cable sent to the State Department earlier this month by America’s ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, and first published Monday in The Washington Post. (Mr. Crocker did not mention the problem in his happy-talk presentations on Capitol Hill last week.) And it is only part of a much larger refugee crisis that is already threatening to spread Iraq’s chaos throughout the region — and one the Bush administration refuses to accept as its responsibility.
Washington has insisted that candidates for refugee status must first be vetted by the United Nations, which has already identified nearly 10,000 Iraqis as desperately in need of resettlement in the United States. In February, American officials promised to process 7,000 refugees by Sept. 30, later downgrading that goal to 2,000. And as with every other pledge on security and political progress in Iraq, American officials have failed spectacularly to achieve even that lower target. So far, only 900 refugees have made it to the United States this year.
Even for those Iraqis lucky enough to be tapped by the United Nations, the process of applying for refugee status is expensive, risky and has no guarantee of success. In an irony obvious to all but the Bush administration, it has decided that it is too dangerous for Department of Homeland Security officials to conduct refugee interviews inside Iraq.
That means that Iraqis who are already in grave danger must make their own way to neighboring Jordan to apply for refugee status at the American Embassy. And the frustrations do not end there. The Department of Homeland Security has too few officials stationed in Amman to conduct the required interviews, leading to further delays. Then the bureaucracy really kicks in as the departments of state and homeland security review the applications to ensure the claims are valid and that none of those seeking entry pose a security risk.
All told, Mr. Crocker estimated that Iraqis must wait 8 to 10 months from the time they are referred to American authorities before they can hope to arrive in the United States. He warned that those delays are only likely to get worse. To unclog choke points, Mr. Crocker suggested that State Department officers stationed in Iraq be allowed to conduct refugee interviews — at least for those Iraqis who work for the embassy — and he called for a significant speeding up of the security review process for all applicants. Instead of endorsing Mr. Crocker’s sensible recommendations, administration officials disputed his criticism.
This system needs to be fixed, and it needs to be fixed fast. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice can start by giving a senior member of her staff responsibility for breaking the bureaucratic logjam. Ms. Rice must also press her colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security to do the same.
Welcoming Iraqis into the United States as refugees is not cost-free. It draws skilled people out of a country that desperately needs their talents and makes it increasingly likely that they will never return home. Washington, however, has a profound moral obligation, especially to those Iraqis who have risked their lives on America’s behalf. If America abandons them now, it will mean even more suffering and more shame for the United States from this shameful and disastrous war.
Editorial : The New York Times
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