After years of delay and bureaucratic red tape, refugees from the Iraq war are finally being allowed into the United States. But America “is opening its gates to refugees and simply forgetting about them after they have arrived.”
In the process, “the United States is in danger of failing to meet its legal obligations to extend protection to the most vulnerable refugees, promote their long-term self-sufficiency, and support their integration.”
These are among the key findings of a study carried out by a team of students at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC. The students, members of Georgetown Human Rights Action, conducted the study in partnership with the Law Center’s Human Rights Institute. They interviewed Iraqi refugees in Jordan and in two cities in the US, Washington, DC and Detroit.
Their report said, “Across the United States, many resettled Iraqi refugees are wondering how, after fleeing persecution at home to seek refuge in (Jordan) a country that barely tolerated them, they have found themselves in ‘the land of opportunity’ with little hope of achieving a secure and decent life.”
It charges that recently resettled Iraqi refugees “face odds so heavily stacked against them that most end up jobless, some even homeless” and cites the experience of one Iraqi widow who lives with her three young children in a shelter.
“I left Iraq to find security,” the refugee said. “But what kind of security is it to live in a homeless shelter?”
The report applauded the advocates who “worked tirelessly to encourage the US government to accept Iraqis who were forced to flee a war initiated by the United States,” but noted that “few have studied what happens to those refugees after they arrive here.”
Acknowledging that resettlement is one of three “durable solutions” for refugees, the report said there has been “scarce focus on just how durable the US resettlement system actually is.”
It said that the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) “is unique in giving new life and opportunity to millions of refugees, accepting many times more than the rest of the world combined.” But it cautions that as these new refugees from Iraq arrive in increasing numbers, and “as the US economy continues to offer little prospect for those seeking work, there is an urgent need to diagnose the ills of refugee resettlement before they become incurable.”
The project sought to determine the extent to which Iraqi refugees have been afforded protection and a durable solution through the USRAP. Throughout their report, “long-term self-sufficiency” and “long-term integration” are the terms used to describe both the goal of the USRAP and the standard against which it is measured.
The report said, “If the United States is to meet its own aims and serve as a guarantor of security for those it welcomes to its shores, it is imperative that US policies be based on respect for these legal norms.”
The report’s principal findings:
* The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees created “11 resettlement eligibility criteria for Iraqi refugees,” including survivors of torture and violence, including sexual and gender based violence; members of minority groups and persons targeted due to their ethnicity or sect; women at risk in country of asylum; unaccompanied or separate children; elderly refugees; and refugees with medical needs. Despite the US government agreeing to these criteria, the study notes that the USRAP “offers resettlement to those refugees with particular vulnerabilities that can inhibit their ability to achieve self-sufficiency while expecting them to quickly become self-sufficient.”
* Iraqi refugees rarely enjoy legal protection and long-term self-sufficiency in Jordan, and resettlement remains an important solution for many Iraqi refugees. Some refugees, including particularly vulnerable refugees, are refusing resettlement offers to the United States because of a perceived lack of post-resettlement services. However, most Iraqi refugees interviewed desired to be resettled to the United States.
* The application of mainstream US anti-poverty programs to refugee assistance under the USRAP does not promote the long-term self-sufficiency of refugees. It does not break down barriers to sustainable employment, employment services are not properly funded, English language training is insufficient, transportation is inadequate, and professional recertification is not viable. These deficiencies result in low employment rates for Iraqi refugees. Additionally, cash assistance is insufficient, both in amount and duration, to allow refugees to support themselves … The USRAP makes it difficult for refugees to secure medical care, and treatment options are insufficient to address the serious mental health issues that affect many Iraqi refugees.
* Poor planning and coordination throughout the USRAP amplify the problems refugees face. Pre-resettlement processing takes little account of post-resettlement needs when gathering information about individual refugees. The USRAP does not base services capacity-setting on current or future refugee flows, leaving programs improperly funded. Secondary migration is not properly tracked, further preventing the USRAP from targeting resources to actual needs.
The report recommended that refugee resettlement should be decoupled from US anti-poverty programs and tailored to the unique needs and experiences of refugees. It suggested that refugee assistance be increased from eight to eighteen months, and programs designed to promote the long-term self-sufficiency and integration of refugees should be better funded. Stronger emphasis should be placed on the core barriers to self-sufficiency and integration, including lack of English language skills, lack of transportation and lack of opportunities for education and recertification.
It also recommended that funding for employment and social services should be tailored to estimates of incoming refugee arrivals and secondary migration, as well as the unique needs of these particular groups. Funding should not be based on the number of past refugee arrivals.
Finally, the report said, “All actors within the USRAP must improve planning and information sharing capabilities. Planning should anticipate and prepare for the unique needs of each refugee group prior to arrival. In order to tailor services for refugees, actors must take into account important information on refugees collected in the resettlement process, such as health status and professional background.
The United Nations estimates that there are currently 4.7 million Iraqi external and internal refugees. Until 2007, the numbers admitted to the US were in the low hundreds. Then, under pressure from advocacy groups and increased reporting on the plight of Iraqi refugees, the US began resettling more Iraqis. In the fall of 2007, Congress passed the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, providing admission for Iraqis that worked for the US or its contractors in Iraq, and allowing in-country processing for at-risk Iraqis.
In 2008, the United States appointed two senior coordinators for Iraqi Refugees, one at the Department of State and one at the Department of Homeland Security, to strengthen the American humanitarian commitment to refugees with a particular emphasis on resettlement. In FY 2008, the US resettled 13,822 Iraqi refugees. As of August 31, 2009, the US has resettled 16,965, totaling approximately 33,000 since the start of the 2003 war.