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US Lawmakers Examine Plight of Iraqi Refugees

Millions of Iraqis have been displaced by the sectarian violence wracking their country, and many have sought refuge in neighboring countries - severely straining those governments' resources. Some U.S. lawmakers believe the United States should do more to help Iraqi refugees, especially those who provided direct support to U.S. troops in Iraq. Two Iraqis who worked for the U.S. military in Iraq told Congress Tuesday that they were forced to flee their country after they received death threats. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

The two Iraqis did not use their real names, and they delivered their compelling testimony from behind screens to protect their identities.

The first to testify before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee was a 27-year-old man who called himself Sami. He had a job as a translator for U.S. troops in Iraq. But he said his work in support of the U.S. military made him a target of death squads:

"My name was listed on the doors of several mosques calling for my death," said Sami. "Supposed friends of mine saw my name of the list and turned on me because they believed I was a traitor."

But even after he left his job working for U.S. troops, he believes he was still targeted. He described this harrowing incident in 2005:

"On November 7, I was seriously injured as a target in a car bombing," he said. "I was in a car traveling through a Mosul neighborhood when a suicide bomber in a car directly behind me blew himself up. I was hit by shrapnel in the face, bloodied and dazed. I am fortunate to be alive. Following this brush with death, I fled Iraq."

Sami arrived in the United States later that month on a temporary visitor visa, and last June, was the first Iraqi to be granted asylum under a special visa authorized by Congress.

A second Iraqi who has been given asylum in the United States for his work driving trucks for U.S. troops in Iraq said he, too, almost lost his life because of the job he did. The 48-year-old man who calls himself John said six men forced him to drive out to a desert, where they beat him.

"They told me they would kill me," said John. "I pleaded for my life. Five of the terrorists were yelling, kill him! One, however, spoke up and said we will not kill you, but you must leave the country immediately. If I did not leave, they promised to kidnap and slaughter my entire family. They continued to beat me until I was knocked unconscious. I awoke several hours later alone and in the desert. I returned home to tell my family we had to leave the country immediately."

The special visas given to John and Sami are two of the 50 such visas granted to Iraqi and Afghan nationals who have worked in support of U.S. troops.

Some Democrats on the Judiciary Committee want to see that number increased.

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont is chairman of the panel:

"I am particularly concerned that we have not made provisions or created the legal authority necessary in this country to secure those Iraqis who have aided American efforts there," said Patrick Leahy. "These are people who we have called upon to help us, and now we are not there to help them."

But Ellen Sauerbrey, the U.S. State Department's Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration, says part of the reason that more Iraqi refugees are not settled in the United States is a tougher security review that they must pass as a result of legislation passed by Congress in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United State:

"One of the reasons you are seeing so few Iraqis come into the United States since 2003 is because of enhanced security review that has been required, that has made it very difficult for these Iraqi refugees who have been referred to us by the UNHCR to pass through the screening mechanism," said Ellen Sauerbrey. "That enhanced security review has also led to UNHCR not making referrals to the United States."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are 1.7 million internally displaced Iraqis and two million more who have become refugees in other countries, mainly in Syria and Jordan.

The situation is straining the host nations' economies.

Michel Gabaudan, regional representative for the United States and Caribbean at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, says the situation is one of the most serious humanitarian crises the UNHCR faces today.

"We are increasingly concerned about reports of deportations and denial of access to the borders," said Michel Gabaudan. "This reflects the strain that large refugee populations have placed on host societies. Living conditions for refugees who remain in host countries are also deteriorating. Families have either depleted resources that they brought with them, or lacked resources to begin with. In this context, some women may be vulnerable to forced prostitution and young people to child labor. Some 30 percent of Iraqi children are not attending school, and access to health care is seriously limited."

Gaubadan says the UNHCR hopes to hold an international conference on Iraqi resettlement in the first half of this year.