The Bush administration said Wednesday it plans to accept at least 7,000 Iraqi refugees for resettlement in the United States this year, and to step up funding to the U.N. refugee agency. The announcement followed a meeting between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
The Iraqis to be admitted represent a big increase for the United States, which has resettled fewer than 500 Iraqi refugees since the Iraq war began in 2003.
But both Commissioner Guterres and Bush administration officials concede the number is little more than the proverbial drop in the ocean, given the nearly four million Iraqis who are either internally displaced or have taken refuge in neighboring countries.
They say the overriding needs are for the international community to increase humanitarian assistance for the refugees, and for the restoration of peace in Iraq to allow those who have fled to return home.
At a news conference following a day of meetings with the U.N. refugee chief, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Ellen Sauerbrey said the vast majority of displaced Iraqis neither seek nor require permanent refuge abroad. "There is a perception I think that there is a huge number of people just waiting to leave their country or their region and come to be resettled elsewhere. In reality, this refugee crisis is no different than those that we deal with throughout the world. And most people do not want to resettle in another country. Most people want to stay in the region, certainly have their needs met, but they want to go home," she said.
In addition to the resettlement commitment, administration officials said the United States will contribute 18 million dollars to a 60-million dollar special Iraqi refugee fund being set up by the U.N. refugee agency.
Commissioner Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister, said his agency will hold a donor conference in Geneva in April to try to further assist displaced Iraqis, more than 40,000 of whom are fleeing the country each month and have dwindling options of where to go.
Guterres, just back from a Middle East tour, paid tribute to countries hosting Iraqi refugees - particularly Jordan and Syria, which have accepted most of the estimated two million who have gone abroad.
He said many of the Iraqis were from the country's middle class but are becoming increasingly impoverished and desperate over time, and he said he is concerned about the danger of a political backlash against them. "I must say I am particularly worried about the evolution of public opinion in these two countries. Listening to cab drivers, to average citizens, people are feeling more and more that many of the problems they face because of inflation, because of difficulty to find flats if they want to marry a daughter or a son, are due to the presence of Iraqi refugees," he said.
Despite strained bilateral relations, the United States has begun a political dialogue with the Syrian government over the refugee issue in recent days and is preparing to begin interviews with refugees in Syria about possible U.S. resettlement.
Assistant Secretary Sauerbrey said separate arrangements are being made to assist several thousand Iraqis, most still in that country, who may be endangered because of having served as interpreters or in other capacities with the U.S. military and civilian agencies.