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Admission of Iraqi Refugees Dogged By Backlogs, Delays


The U.S. State Department has designated a special coordinator to help break a bureaucratic logjam that has held back thousands of Iraqi refugees seeking asylum in the United States. Despite promises to admit 7,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of this month, fewer than 1,000 have been admitted into the country this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.

More than 2.3 million Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries since the U.S.-led invasion began in March 2003. Most have taken refuge in Syria and Jordan. But for thousands seeking asylum in the United States, it is a dangerous waiting game.

Republican Senator Gordon Smith says many Iraqi refugees live in fear of reprisal for helping the U.S. "They have the mark of death on them and we can't sit by idly and allow them to be killed when they have helped so much in our effort in Iraq."

Smith is co-sponsor of a bill aimed at lifting some of the roadblocks facing Iraqi refugees. Reports say departmental bureaucracy has held back as many as 10,000 applications.

On Wednesday, the White House appointed James Foley, the former U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, to coordinate communication among the various agencies.

Assistant Secretary Ellen Sauerbrey heads the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. "What we hope is our new coordinator will be able to focus on some very specific areas of logjams that are created in a unique conflict area where security concerns are very high and where we need closer coordination between the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security."

Processing time for Iraqi refugees can take as long as 10 months due to concerns that terrorists could pose as asylum seekers to gain entry into the United States.

Senator Smith says his bill ensures that will not happen. "Security can be verified with background checks, with knowing who these people are and knowing their bonafides. I believe security must not be compromised but that does not mean we can't reform our system and meet our moral obligations to the Iraqi people."

Although they still face a final security clearance, Assistant Secretary Sauerbrey estimates 4,500 refugees will have received provisional clearance by the end of this month. "We're now moving pretty rapidly. I think you will see in the months ahead that the numbers are going to increase dramatically."

Refugee advocacy groups say about 50,000 Iraqis are fleeing their war-torn country each month, making them the fastest-growing refugee population in the world.

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