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Bush Admin Shuts Door to Iraqis as Iraq’s Refugee Crisis Gets Worse

StoryJanuary 10, 2007
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Ahead of President Bush’s expected announcement to send more troops to Iraq, we take a look at Iraq’s growing refugee crisis. The U.N. estimates one in eight Iraqis have fled their homes and that 1.7 million Iraqis are now displaced. Until recently, the Bush administration planned to settle only 500 Iraqi refugees in the United States this year. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to President Bush, who is set to give a major address today outlining a new U.S. strategy in Iraq. The strategy is expected to include an increase of up to 20,000 troops. Since the new Congress took the Hill on Friday, the possibility of a troop surge has drawn increasing criticism from leading Democrats. Senator Ted Kennedy introduced legislation yesterday which would require the president to gain congressional authority before escalating the war in Iraq.

Last week, Kennedy became chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Refugees, Border Security, and Immigration, and has also been a vocal critic of the Bush administration’s policies towards Iraqi refugees. In an op-ed published in a recent issue of The Washington Post, Kennedy condemned the administration’s handling of the refugee situation. He cited the fact that while the 2007 budget proposal allots $8 billion to spending on the war, it currently has set aside only a tiny fraction of that amount — $21 million — to aid the growing number of Iraqi refugees.

Until recently, the Bush administration planned to settle only 500 Iraqi refugees in the United States this year, even as the international situation has grown increasingly dire. The U.N. estimates that one in eight Iraqis have fled their homes and that 1.7 million Iraqis are now displaced. Tens of thousands of people continue to flee Iraq monthly. Up to a million Iraqi refugees are in Syria. Up to 700,000 are in Jordan. Yesterday the U.N. issued a plea for $60 million in emergency funds to deal with the Iraqi refugee crisis.

Well, in November, a team from the group Refugees International traveled to Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. They issued a report called “Iraq: The World’s Fastest Growing Refugee Crisis.” Sean Garcia is an advocate with Refugees International, and he’s part of the group that filed the report, joins me now in Washington, D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now!

SEAN GARCIA: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what the scope of the Iraqi refugee crisis is.

SEAN GARCIA: Sure. As you had mentioned, we have almost 100,000 people leaving Iraq every month, 40,000 of them alone going into Syria. It totals about 1.7 — we expect it to reach two million people in the upcoming months, scattered across the Middle East. And while they are spreading out across the region, they are receiving almost no international support. The U.N., which is the lead agency that handles refugees in the region, only had $1 per person per year to deal with Iraqis last year. While they’ve increased their budget this year, it’s only a doubling of what they had last year. So we’re still expecting Iraqi refugees to receive very little international support in 2007.

AMY GOODMAN: Sean, only 500 Iraqi refugees are allowed in the United States?

SEAN GARCIA: That is a planning number, from what we’ve been told by the Department of State. They can let in many more than that under an unspecified cap that can go to people from any part of the world. The real block right now to resettling Iraqi refugees in the U.S. is actually budgetary. And while we’ve been speaking with the Department of State about that 500 number, the reality is that they don’t have the budget to resettle thousands of people in the U.S. right now. So they are trying to put out there that they want to resettle more, but the reality is they don’t have the money to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the Iraqis who are working with the U.S. government or U.S. military?

SEAN GARCIA: That is almost very, very restricted. There are only 50 spots for translators that work for the U.S. military in either Iraq or Afghanistan to come into the U.S. every year. But the tens of thousands of people who are contracting for the United States inside of Iraq, almost all of those people’s lives are at risk, because they work with coalition forces, and right now they have no option of how to escape Iraq other than to flee to Jordan or Syria, where they have very little support again. Fifty of them will come to the U.S., but that’s clearly not enough.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the implications of this refugee massive exodus out of Iraq for the region?

SEAN GARCIA: It definitely could have a very destabilizing effect on the region. What we are seeing is that while people are supporting themselves currently on their life savings, those savings will only last people no more than four or five months. As soon as those resources run out, if the international community doesn’t start helping people with housing, with food, with medicine, with education, we will see very restive populations of Iraqis throughout the region. And, for example, in Jordan, where we have up to 700,000 Iraqis, that’s almost 10 percent of the Jordanian population now being native born in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are the conditions of the refugee camps in places like Jordan, Syria, Lebanon?

SEAN GARCIA: Sure. They’re actually not living in camp. These are urban refugees. They come from large cities like Baghdad or Fallujah, and they’re moving to urban areas like Amman and Damascus. So they have basically blended into the urban poor, and they are living in the same conditions as many poor in these areas, but they’re in very basic rudimentary housing, many without indoor plumbing, many without electricity, very, very basic food supplies. Many people that we’ve spoke to are not able to put their children in school, because they can’t afford school supplies. They are most definitely foregoing medical care, which is not provided to them by these host countries, and living, again, in very tenuous conditions. If they don’t receive help soon, their resources will run out, and they have nowhere to turn.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happens to them at the border, of places like Jordan, Syria, Lebanon? Are they turned back at any point?

SEAN GARCIA: The Syrian border is the only one that’s open throughout the region at this point. It’s allowing a free flow of Iraqis in. Jordan, which is the other main country that borders Iraq that is receiving refugees, has closed that border down significantly in the past year. They don’t allow men 18 to 35 in. They don’t allow the elderly in. And they don’t allow anyone who’s carrying enough baggage to make it look like they’ll stay. We’re told border control agents have discretion to decide who comes in and who doesn’t. So there is no set policy, but we are hearing of increasing numbers of Iraqis turned away at the Jordanian border. Syria right now is their only option.

AMY GOODMAN: Sean Garcia, thanks so much for joining us. We’ll certainly link to your report at our website. Sean Garcia is with Refugees International.

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