The Bush administration agreed Wednesday to greatly expand the number of Iraqi refugees allowed into the country and to pay more to help Iraq’s Arab neighbors cope with the human tide fleeing increasing violence and economic hardship in their country.
The decision to allow about 7,000 Iraqis to come to the United States answers mounting political and diplomatic pressure on the administration to do more to remedy the consequences of a war it largely started. Only 202 Iraqis were allowed in last year.
The administration also said it will immediately contribute $18 million for a worldwide resettlement and relief program. The United Nations has asked for $60 million from nations around the world.
Although the United Nations estimates that 3.8 million Iraqis have fled their homes since the war began nearly four years ago, the United States has allowed only about 600 to settle in the United States.
The U.S. proposal also includes plans to offer special treatment for Iraqis still in their country whose cooperation with the U.S. puts them at risk. Expanding visa programs for those Iraqis would require legislation in Congress, State Department Undersecretary Paula J. Dobriansky said Wednesday.
Some 2 million Iraqis have left their country, and an additional 1.8 million are believed to have relocated inside Iraq. The refugee flow has increased sharply as sectarian violence has increased over the past year. The numbers have overwhelmed the hospitality of Arab neighbors such as Syria and Jordan.
The United Nations says most of those who have been uprooted have no desire to come to the United States, and want to return to their homes in Iraq when fighting stops.
But allies, U.N. diplomats and lawmakers of both parties have recently told the administration that the small number of Iraqis the U.S. has allowed in looks miserly.
‘Chief cause’ of the problem
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a hearing last week that the United States could bring in 7,000 Iraqis this year — exactly the number announced Wednesday.
The move is a step in the right direction, considering the United States is a “chief cause” of the refugee problem, said Carolyn Saour, an Iraqi-American Christian living in Houston. Still, 7,000 “is severely low for the amount of damage that’s been done over the years,” she said.
The United Nations wants to resettle 20,000 of the most vulnerable refugees this year. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres called the U.S. pledge “a relevant contribution.”
Guterres has implicitly criticized the United States in the past for allowing other nations to shoulder so much of the burden. He met with Rice on Wednesday, and afterward described a “very frank and very positive discussion on how to work better.”
Asked if the U.S. contribution was, in essence, too little too late, Guterres was diplomatic.
“The problem is so huge that nothing is, any time, enough,” Guterres told reporters. “But I think it’s very good stuff—a very good step in the right direction.”
The U.N. estimates that 40,000 to 50,000 people flee Iraq each month with dwindling options of where to go. Most have fled to Syria and Jordan, both of which have recently tried to restrict the influx.
Other Iraqis relocate inside their country, with some leaving neighborhoods that were once mixed among Sunnis and Shiites and resettling where their sect is more concentrated. Unlike most of the movement to other countries, some of the internal relocations will probably be permanent.
The U.N. says some 500,000 fled their homes to other parts of Iraq in 2006 alone and the number could reach 2.3 million — nearly one in 10 Iraqis — by the end of 2007.
This month, Guterres’ Geneva-based agency made an emergency appeal for $60 million to help fleeing Iraqis.
“Unremitting violence in Iraq will likely mean continued mass internal and external displacement affecting much of the surrounding region,” it said.
Many in Syria
U.S. diplomats have discussed the refugee problem directly with the Jordanian and Syrian governments in recent days, Dobriansky said. That is notable because of the administration’s reluctance to engage Syria in high-level discussions about security in Iraq.
Syria has taken in an estimated 1 million Iraqis. It was the last Arab country to take in large numbers.
Although Jordan is a key U.S. ally, the chief government spokesman in Amman did not sound impressed with the U.S. pledges Wednesday.
Nasser Judeh said 7,000 is still a small number compared with the 700,000 Jordan has had to accommodate.
“Seven thousand Iraqi refugees is just 1 percent of the number we have,” Judeh said.