Despite a stepped-up commitment from the United States to take in Iraqis who are in danger because they worked for the U.S. government and military, very few are signing up to go, resettlement officials said.
The reason, Iraqis say, is that they are not allowed to apply in Iraq, requiring them to make a costly and uncertain journey to countries like Syria or Jordan, where they may be turned away by border officials already overwhelmed by fleeing Iraqis.
The United Nations has submitted more than 9,000 Iraqis to the United States for consideration as refugees since the State Department announced a new resettlement program in February, but only about 5 percent of the applicants are former employees connected with the U.S. war effort, according to figures provided by the United Nations and the International Organization for Migration, the agencies processing the cases.
This year, administration officials began publicly discussing the special dangers faced by Iraqis working with Americans here and acknowledging the need to grant them safe haven in the United States. To that end, the Bush administration has set up a special program for a small number of Iraqis, which gives preferential treatment to full-time employees of the U.S. Embassy, currently about 125 in Baghdad, and to 500 interpreters by allowing them to skip the lengthy U.N. refugee process once they leave Iraq.
But thousands more Iraqis work for the United States through contractors like Titan, a subsidiary of L-3 Communications; DynCorp International; Parsons Corp.; and Triple Canopy; or the subcontractors working for them. In all, 69,000 Iraqis work on contracts with the Defense Department through Iraqi and foreign companies, according to the U.S. military. They are cleaners, construction workers, drivers and security guards, to name a few, and although they face the same reprisals as anyone working more directly with the U.S. government, they do not fall into the special category.
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy here said all Iraqis who had worked for the United States would have their refugee applications sped up once they fled Iraq and reached neighboring countries like Jordan or Syria.
“The big question mark is for those who can’t reach us here,” said Rafiq A. Tschannen, chief of the Iraq mission for the International Organization for Migration in Amman, Jordan.
The United States has processed large numbers of refugees inside countries they were trying to flee, namely Vietnam in the 1970s and the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, and it could also do it in Iraq, Tschannen said, where the embassy is one of America’s largest in the world.
State Department officials said they might consider being flexible about processing potential refugees within Iraq, but that security concerns have prevented it so far. Beyond that, the United Nations only formally recognizes those who have fled their countries as refugees, though the United States is not bound by that definition.