AMBASSADOR JAMES B. FOLEY
THE SECRETARY’S SENIOR COORDINATOR
FOR IRAQI REFUGEE ISSUES
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
HOUSE FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE
SUBCOMMITTEES ON THE MIDDLE EAST AND SOUTH ASIA
AND INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND OVERSIGHT
MARCH 11, 2008
Chairman Ackerman, Chairman Delahunt, and distinguished members of the Committees, it is an honor to appear before you today to discuss the plight of Iraqi refugees and what the United States is doing to meet their humanitarian needs. I welcome the opportunity to describe the efforts the Administration is taking to provide humanitarian assistance to displaced Iraqis, both in neighboring countries of first asylum and for populations inside Iraq. The Administration shares your concern about the current situation facing Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), and is committed to helping improve conditions for them in countries of first asylum, providing assistance to the neediest individuals, and seeking durable solutions for all of them. We continue to work closely with host governments in the region, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In keeping with both international norms and past experience, it is the primary responsibility of the international community to provide assistance and protection to refugees in the region until such time as it is safe for them to return home. At the same time, we are also actively pursuing resettlement to the United States for the most vulnerable, including Iraqis who are in danger because of their close association with U.S. efforts in Iraq, who should have this important form of international protection.
I would first like to touch on our efforts to assist displaced Iraqis, both inside Iraq and in other countries in the region. UNHCR estimates that 4.5 million Iraqis are currently displaced: 2.5 million internally and 2 million in Iraq’s neighboring countries, severely straining host governments’ ability to provide basic social services. For now, these numbers have leveled off. Jordan began gradually to limit access to Iraqis at the land border and the international airport in early 2007, and by summer, it had effectively closed its border to Iraqi asylum-seekers. Syria did much the same in September when it announced a visa requirement for Iraqis entering Syria. Jordan’s borders remain closed to Iraqis, with the exception of government officials, business travelers and others with specific needs or objectives. The Syrian border is somewhat less strictly regulated; UNHCR estimated that in December, some 1,500 Iraqis per day were crossing from Iraq to Syria, with 500 per day moving in the other direction, from Syria to Iraq, yielding a net inflow into Syria of about 1,000 per day. These numbers represent all categories, including commercial traffic and temporary visitors; many are probably asylum-seekers, but not all.
There are no reliable independent estimates of the number of Iraqis in Syria and Jordan. The humanitarian community has not been given permission by either the Jordanian or Syrian governments to conduct a precise survey or census of Iraqi refugees and both governments have, at different times, offered different estimates of Iraqis in their territory. A Norwegian NGO, FAFO, conducted a survey in Jordan last year and, after negotiations with the government of Jordan, estimated that 450,000 Iraqis were present in the country (a decline from the previous estimate of 750,000 Iraqis in Jordan). Some in the humanitarian community believe that host governments are using inflated estimates of Iraqis to leverage increased humanitarian assistance. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres recently explained that UNHCR, having registered 214,000 refugees in Jordan and Syria and having developed other sources of information, has sufficient data to target the neediest refugees for appropriate assistance and protection programs. As a result, UNHCR is not focusing on the overall numbers but, correctly, in our view, on how many Iraqis are in need of assistance and delivering that assistance to them.
Based largely on estimates provided by the host countries and other general estimates, UNHCR has estimated the number of Iraqis in countries in the region as follows: Syria, 1.2 to 1.4 million; Jordan, 450-500,000; Lebanon, 50,000; Egypt, 20-40,000; Turkey, 5-10,000; Iran, more than 57,000; Gulf States, more than 200,000. As I will explain below, we understand that these estimates include many Iraqis who left Saddam Hussein’s Iraq prior to 2003. Those living in both Iran and the Gulf States are not recognized as refugees by host governments, receive no international assistance, and appear to be self-supporting. The majority of Iraqis recognized as refugees cannot realistically expect a durable solution to their plight other than to return to Iraq when circumstances permit. Jordan and Syria, hosting the great majority of refugees, have emphasized publicly that Iraqis will not be allowed to resettle permanently in those countries. Additionally, High Commissioner Guterres recently informed us that he has received affirmation from both countries that they will not forcibly expel Iraqis. UNHCR, whose mission includes resettlement of the most vulnerable refugees to third countries, does not expect to refer to resettlement countries more than 25,000 applicants in calendar year 2008. It is unclear how Iran and the Gulf States will treat the many Iraqi migrants in their countries over the longer term.
Within Iraq, the most recently published survey by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) states that there are 2.5 million displaced persons, of which 1.3 million were displaced after the Samarra al-Askari Mosque bombing of February 2006. However, new displacements have fallen significantly, from over 14,000 individuals in September 2007 to just a few hundred in December, and that trend seems to be continuing in the first two months of 2008.
Indeed, many displacements of persons within Iraq are not the result of the events of the last several years, but go back to Saddam Hussein’s Arabization and anti-Kurd campaigns of the 1990’s and before. It is fair to assume that many of those who have been in displacement for ten years or more have created stable lives in their new homes, do not need assistance, and may not want to uproot again and return to their former homes. In contrast, IOM surveys show that the majority of post-February 2006 IDPs are in need of shelter, food, and employment. Sixty percent say they want to return to their homes (with another 20% wanting to move to another location), and 20% express a desire to remain in their current location.
Iraqi refugees outside of Iraq and IDPs share many common features. They left their homes in fear of their lives for largely the same reasons: sectarian violence, lawlessness, terrorist activity and military operations. In fleeing, both refugees and IDPs generally took with them what wealth they could, but many were unable to sell their homes or other property. Most refugees and IDPs do not currently have regular work and are forced to subsist on savings or remittances from family members in Iraq or elsewhere. Many refugees and IDPs find their resources dwindling, affecting all aspects of their lives, from education and medical care to the size of the apartment they can rent, to the amount of food that can be put on the table.
International organizations and NGOs report that among refugees and IDPs alike, the most critical problem is increasing impoverishment. I mention these similarities because at some point in the future, conditions in Iraq may become sufficiently safe and stable so that large numbers of refugees and IDPs will decide to return to their homes. We cannot predict when those conditions will prevail and are not urging refugees or IDPs to return to their homes on any particular schedule. Indeed, the decision to return is that of the refugee and IDP, and they should be able to make that choice voluntarily and free of duress. In this respect, Iraqi refugees and IDPs seem relatively well informed about conditions in Iraq and will base their decisions on a wide range of information. For example, there was a brief upsurge in returns to Baghdad in November and December 2007, which the Government of Iraq tried to encourage and extend by providing cash assistance and bus transportation from Damascus. However, when it became clear that as many as 70% of the approximately 46,000 returning refugees during that period were unable to return to their homes, and that basic services (shelter, education, health) were still lacking, the stream of returns soon dwindled.
We are working closely with our partners to plan for this contingency; High Commissioner Guterres, during a recent visit to Baghdad, stated that UNHCR would partner with the Government of Iraq (GOI) to assess the potential for large-scale returns and the policies and programs necessary to accommodate them. We will work closely with UNHCR, the GOI, and other current and potential partners to ensure that policies, organizations, and plans are in place if and when large-scale returns do commence.
In the meantime, the Department of State and USAID will play a major role in providing life-sustaining support to refugees and IDPs. In 2007, State and USAID programmed more than $171 million to assist displaced Iraqis. PRM’s overall contribution of $123 million in 2007 funded UNHCR programs in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq; IOM and other IO programs in Iraq; and NGO operations in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. 2007 was a building year for refugee assistance programs; in the previous year, we funded only one NGO to assist Iraqi refugees, but in the course of 2007, we supported 10 new NGOs and programmed $18.5 million for health, education, and other life-sustaining projects. At our encouragement, UNHCR teamed with UNICEF to issue a $130 million appeal for educational programs for Iraqi refugees; we quickly contributed $39 million (30%) to the appeal to ensure that Iraqi children would be able to enroll in school or benefit from educational programs outside of school. We also urged UNHCR, WHO and UNICEF to combine their health appeals for Iraqi refugees into a single joint appeal of $85 million, toward which we contributed $23 million. Within Iraq, our contributions to ICRC and UNHCR enabled those organizations to stand up a network of international and local NGOs in all 18 of Iraq’s governorates. These interventions should complement the ongoing efforts of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), which has provided more than $250 million in humanitarian assistance to IDPs and vulnerable host communities since 2003, with life-sustaining support, including water, sanitation, hygiene, health care, food and non-food commodities, and livelihood assistance.
Although refugee and IDP populations have not grown significantly so far in 2008, we expect the needs of these existing populations to intensify with the passage of time. As noted earlier, many refugees and IDPs, especially those displaced after the Samarra mosque bombing in February 2006, fled without being able to fully liquidate their assets, especially their homes. While many were able to sustain themselves and their families for a time in Jordan, in Syria, in other neighboring countries, or in new neighborhoods in Iraq, they are inexorably depleting their resources. Iraqis without residence permits in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey are prohibited from working. Most Iraqi refugees do not have residency permits and while many do work surreptitiously, their jobs tend to be marginal and poorly paid. Within Iraq, IOM estimates that 60% of IDPs are unemployed. As the resources of Iraqi families shrink, they can no longer afford vital services: school fees, prescription drugs, clothing, taxi or bus fare, a varied diet, and even rent (often the biggest single expense). Impoverishment often brings social ills, from family violence to child labor to prostitution. As UNHCR and NGOs in the field report, the caseload of vulnerable and needy Iraqi refugees and IDPs is expanding even as the rate of displacement falls.
The Administration is thus grateful that Congress recognized this continuing, growing need and provided $200 million in emergency funding to the Migration and Refugee Assistance Account, of which $149.4 million will support Iraq-related humanitarian programs. In addition, $110 million was provided in emergency funding to the International Disaster Assistance (IDA) account, of which $80 million is planned for Iraq assistance. To date, the Department has made $125.9 million of MRA funding available to international partners for Iraq programs. We will use much of the remaining funds to support expanded NGO programming and expect to issue a call for proposals this week. In addition, in January we programmed $20 million in reprogrammed ESF funding to the joint UN health appeal for Iraqi refugees. Additionally, in January USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA) programmed $26 million in IDA funding to five NGO’s delivering services to IDPs in Iraq. DCHA also programmed $36 million from P.L. 480 Title II (“Food for Peace”) to the World Food Program for emergency food packages to refugees in Syria and IDPs in Iraq. Out of the Department's $145.9 million pledged contributions, PRM will contribute $95.4 million toward UNHCR’s $261 million 2008 appeal, including $12.4 million earmarked for health programs; $5 million to World Food Program operations in Syria; $13 million to the UNICEF and WHO portions of the UN health and education appeals; and over $32 million to other international organizations. In total, the USG will contribute $208 million in humanitarian assistance for displaced Iraqis in the first half of FY 2008, approximately $37 million more than our total assistance in FY 2007. These early funding actions have allowed us to front-load support for the programs of our implementing partners that assist refugees and IDPs, who usually do not get contributions from other donors until later in the year. This ensures that life-sustaining programs can be continued and expanded as necessary without interruption. These efforts, while critical, will not alone suffice to meet the increasing needs of Iraqi refugees, conflict victims, and IDPs for the entirety of 2008. Humanitarian partners have estimated overall 2008 needs of over $900 million. We would be grateful for early Congressional consideration of the FY 2008 supplemental funding request in order to support these requirements.
We have also conducted a very energetic diplomatic program in parallel with and in support of our monetary contributions to humanitarian assistance and protection. In 2007, the Department of State vigorously sought to persuade Jordan and Syria to create more humanitarian space for Iraqi refugees themselves and for the UN and NGO agencies trying to deliver assistance. Former PRM Assistant Secretary Ellen Sauerbrey visited Jordan and Syria in April, and I followed suit with a visit to Jordan and Syria in October. PRM Acting Assistant Secretary Samuel Witten just returned from consultations with senior leaders in Jordan and Lebanon in which he expressed the U.S. Government’s appreciation for the positive actions by those governments in connection with the displaced Iraqis currently living in those countries. In February, Under-Secretary Paula Dobriansky traveled to Baghdad where she met with OFDA field officers, implementing partners, representatives from the Ministry of Migration, and a select group of Baghdad IDPs.
We have augmented our staff and deployed them in the region frequently to support our embassies. Our efforts have born fruit, with, for example, Jordan lifting restrictions that had prevented Iraqi children lacking residency documentation from attending public school. Both Jordan and Syria have made firm commitments to High Commissioner Guterres that they would not arbitrarily expel or refoule Iraqi refugees, and Lebanon has permitted all Iraqis registered with UNHCR to remain in the country on renewable visas. In addition, in October I visited Baghdad to assist Ambassador Crocker’s efforts to persuade the Iraqi Government to support its citizens abroad and take concrete steps to prepare for refugee and IDP returns within Iraq. One of the results of our diplomatic engagement with Iraq was the GOI’s commitment to transfer $25 million to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon to assist Iraqi refugees. We are urging the GOI to provide substantially more. The Department has also actively encouraged other donors to support the humanitarian needs of displaced Iraqis. Later this month, I will depart on a trip that will include stops in the Gulf and in Europe to continue our engagement with donors (and potential donors).
The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) is another important aspect of our response to Iraqi refugee needs in the region. In February 2007, UNHCR announced its intention to refer 20,000 Iraqis to resettlement countries during the calendar year, with over half of that number to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). At the time UNHCR decided to start referring Iraqis for resettlement, the U.S. Government had virtually no refugee processing infrastructure in the two major asylum countries, Syria and Jordan. Neither country had been a location where UNHCR and the United States had collaborated on resettlement operations, and neither UNHCR, the host countries, the United States nor any other resettlement country, had in-country staff or facilities in place to process resettlement requests. Immediately after UNHCR’s decision to refer cases to the United States, however, we took the steps needed to establish processing operations in both countries, hired and trained local and international staff, and prepared thousands of cases for presentation to adjudicators from the Department of Homeland Security. Since the expansion of our program began less than a year ago, the USRAP has received close to 20,000 referrals of Iraqis. The DOS OPE’s have prepared for interview and DHS/USCIS officers have interviewed over 11,000 individuals.
While the USRAP receives the majority of its refugee resettlement referrals from UNHCR, our program has sufficient flexibility to provide access to vulnerable Iraqis through other mechanisms as well. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad began referring Iraqis associated with the U.S. efforts in Iraq to the refugee resettlement program early last year and continues to do so. We also established a program whereby Iraqis who worked as direct-hire employees of the U.S. Mission in Iraq or on a full-time basis as interpreters with the USG or MNF-I have direct access to the USRAP in Egypt and Jordan. Last year, Department of State and DHS staff conducted a training workshop for NGOs in the region to instruct and empower them to refer particularly vulnerable cases to the USRAP for consideration. Last December, PRM and DHS also established direct access for Iraqi beneficiaries of approved I-130 immigrant visa petitions, both current and non-current. I-130 petitions may be filed by U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents on behalf of eligible family members.
“The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act,” included in the FY 2008 Defense Authorization Act and enacted January 28 of this year, creates new categories of Iraqis who are eligible for direct access to the USRAP. These include direct-hire employees of the U.S., employees of certain entities receiving U.S. funds, and employees of a U.S.-based media organization or NGO, as well as certain family members of those employees and certain individuals with family members in the U.S. Iraqis who were engaged as Locally Employed Staff (LES) or who worked on a full-time basis as interpreters with the USG or MNF-I continue to be eligible for direct access, as they were under the previous guidelines. Individuals who believe they meet these criteria may contact our Overseas Processing Entity (OPE) in Amman and Cairo, operated by the IOM, in order to initiate the process. The Act also extends refugee resettlement benefits to special immigrants from Iraq.
In addition to the new groups being processed pursuant to the recent legislation, our OPEs are already processing certain individuals who had access to the USRAP through the previously existing P-2 designation for Iraqi beneficiaries of approved I-130 petitions. This encompasses all Iraqis, including members of a religious or minority community who have close U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident family members in the United States who have successfully petitioned for the Iraqi refugee applicants’ eligibility to immigrate to the United States, and is thus broader than the group granted direct access to refugee processing based on having close family members in the U.S. under the Act.
At present, we are only able to offer direct access to our program in Jordan and Egypt, but we intend to expand this to other countries in the future. Due to host government policy or regulations in Syria and Turkey, however, we are only able to process individuals referred by UNHCR and anticipate that we will be unable to offer direct access to the USRAP in those countries.
This new legislation also mandates in-country refugee processing for certain categories of Iraqis associated with the United States. PRM and DHS have already begun processing a small group of direct-hire Embassy employees and members of their families in Baghdad, and approved refugees should begin to travel to the United States in April. PRM, IOM and Embassy Baghdad staff are also moving forward on establishing a permanent OPE facility in Baghdad, which will be necessary to provide in-country processing for an expanded P-2 program for Iraqis. We have the full support of our Embassy, as well as DHS, to implement this aspect of the legislation. Indeed, the authority provided under the law along with the improved security situation give us a unique opportunity to resettle hitherto unreachable Iraqis in country facing grave danger because of their employment by or association with the United States.
The Department of State is committed to reaching the Administration’s goal of admitting 12,000 Iraqi refugees during the current fiscal year. Monthly arrivals so far this fiscal year are low, and we have a challenging road ahead of us, but we are doing everything possible to ensure success. Our fiscal year arrivals through March 6 are 2,023. Monthly arrivals will fluctuate and we never anticipated that we would admit 1,000 Iraqis per month; the goal is for the fiscal year as a whole. Expanding processing for Iraqis involved many actors beefing up their capacity throughout the region: UNHCR, our OPEs, and the State Department. We are now able to prepare large numbers of referrals and support the large DHS/USCIS circuit rides that will produce substantially higher numbers of monthly arrivals later in the fiscal year. One reason our arrivals to date have remained low was that DHS was not permitted to adjudicate cases in Damascus for five months last year. The Syrian Government allowed DHS to resume interviews in November 2007 after an agreement was reached following my trip to Damascus. We appreciated this decision, and accepted a framework that places significantly higher burdens on UNHCR. We indeed commend UNHCR for stepping forward to help us resume refugee processing in Syria. Nonetheless the preceding hiatus reduced the pool of approved Iraqis who would now be moving to the U.S. had they been interviewed according to schedule.
In order to reach our goal by September 30, we have a robust OPE and DHS/USCIS interview schedule for the second and third quarters. USCIS officers currently in the region will conclude interviews of over 8,400 Iraqis by the end of March, and we expect USCIS to interview another 8,000 Iraqis by the end of June. However, success will depend on continued and even improved cooperation among many actors. It is important for agencies to complete the necessary security checks on Iraqi refugees in a thorough but expeditious manner and to approve Iraqis who are eligible for exemption from the material support bar expeditiously. Of particular concern are the challenges we face in expanding the capacity of our Overseas Processing Entity, the International Organization for Migration, in Damascus. The framework agreed upon to restore processing in Syria has allowed DHS to resume interviews, but the limits that the Syrian Government continues to place on OPE staffing constrict both the size of the caseload and the speed with which it can be processed.
I have often been asked why we do not simply shift our efforts to other countries since we face so many challenges in Syria. We have indeed expanded refugee processing in Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and Lebanon and will continue maximum processing of individuals referred to us by UNHCR, as well as those who are eligible for direct access consideration. However, registrations, while continuing in Jordan, have slowed considerably. Only about 52,000 Iraqis have currently registered for UNHCR protection in Jordan, and many of them are not pursuing resettlement in the United States or any other country. As a result, while we are still processing for resettlement thousands of Iraqis in Jordan, the future potential is much greater in Syria, where the logistical challenges are also greater. In summary, greater cooperation by the Syrian government is essential for the effective processing of the greatest number of the most vulnerable Iraqis in need of durable solutions.
Another challenge we face is that applicants often apply when they are still undecided about the decision to resettle permanently. Iraqis drop out at various stages in the process, including individuals who simply do not appear for their pre-screening appointment, their USCIS interview or their medical appointment. In addition, there are a certain number of individuals who have been referred to us by UNHCR whom we cannot locate, either because they have moved or even returned to Iraq. And finally, there are a number of approved Iraqi refugees who do not appear for their flights to the United States, either because they have not completed the exit clearance process in their country of first asylum or because they have changed their minds about permanent resettlement to the United States. In sum, despite our outreach and robust cooperation with UNHCR and host government authorities, many displaced Iraqis who could pursue some or all of the steps toward resettlement either do not make themselves available for the crucial steps in our process or ultimately choose not to be resettled.
Given the large numbers of Iraqi refugees, the U.S. and other third country resettlement programs will play an important role in the international community’s overall effort to meet Iraqi refugee needs. However, only a small percentage of refugees worldwide are referred for third country resettlement by UNHCR. This statistic is true with respect to displaced Iraqis in the same way it is the case in displacement situations around the world. As a result, while offering resettlement as robustly as we can in often difficult operating environments, our preponderant responsibility is to provide protection and assistance to refugees in their countries of first asylum.
Chairman Ackerman and Chairman Delahunt, we appreciate your interest in Iraqi refugee issues and look forward to working closely with you as we continue to expand protection for Iraqi refugees, conflict victims, and IDPs, and ensure that the vulnerable among them receive assistance, access to social services, and, for the most vulnerable of all, the opportunity to resettle to a third country. Thank you for the opportunity to address the Committee. This concludes my testimony. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.