Trickle of refugees allowed in US to grow

WASHINGTON (AFP) — The United States insisted Wednesday it felt a “moral obligation” to resettle vulnerable Iraqis in the face of anger that far too few refugees from the war have been allowed onto US shores.

Security vetting designed to keep out Iraqi insurgents has limited the number of refugees resettled in the United States to a handful.

But at events marking World Refugee Day, US officials said the resettlement programme was being stepped up with the goal of allowing in some 7,000 Iraqis by the end of this year.

“We’re committed to helping all Iraqi refugees,” Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky said at a conference organised by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“We feel a moral obligation, especially to help those Iraqis who have put themselves at risk in order to work with the United States government,” she said.

Dobriansky announced that the US government was giving an extra $72 million  to the UNHCR, taking its 2007 contribution to nearly $290 million.

“In keeping with our heritage and values, America continues to be the world’s leader in welcoming refugees to our shores, to start their lives anew,” she said.

Since 1975, 2.6 million refugees have resettled in the United States. “They have overcome enormous challenges and have truly strengthened the very fabric of this nation,” Dobriansky said.

The US administration is permitting an additional 59 Iraqis to emigrate to the country, joining the 701 refugees already granted asylum. They are mostly interpreters, drivers and other support staff employed by US officials in Iraq.

Critics have noted that the figures pale in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who were welcomed to the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975 to communist North Vietnamese forces.

About two million Iraqis have sought refuge abroad, especially in neighbouring Syria and Jordan, since the US-led invasion of 2003, the UN says.

Sweden alone took in about 9,000 Iraqi refugees last year, more than half of the number granted entry into the European Union as a whole.

Ellen Sauerbrey, the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, said it had proven hard since the September 11 attacks of 2001, “when security for Americans is so important”, to vet all Iraqi refugees.

“It’s taken a long time to get us to this point,” she said, anticipating the arrival “in the next couple of weeks” of the 59 Iraqis.

“But behind the first planeload is going to come thousands that will come before the end of this calendar year,” she told a forum on refugees organised by the Women’s Foreign Policy Group.

The administration has given $150 million to fund social services for Iraqis in Syria and Jordan, Sauerbrey said.

It is also funding programmes to get 100,000 Iraqi children in Syria, and 50,000 in Jordan, into school for the start of the academic year in 10 weeks, she added.

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