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US Congressional Panel Considers Iraqi Refugee Problem

In testimony to a congressional committee, a United Nations official has expressed renewed concern about conditions facing Iraqi refugees who have fled to neighboring countries. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill.

Deputy United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Craig Johnstone, says the Iraq refugee situation remains the largest in the world.

Four to five million Iraqis are estimated to have fled their country, many to Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, although Johnstone says exact figures are difficult.

The U.N. official says there is now a somewhat improved asylum situation in neighboring countries, with diminished threats, at least for the time being, of forced return.

At the same time, Johnstone says Iraqis who have fled their country, many of them well-educated, face difficult and desperate circumstances as urban refugees.

"If you can't have a job, if you have no money you will starve to death as a well-educated person just as fast as somebody that has no education, and I think sometimes that gets lost on us because when we talk to these people they are extraordinarily articulate, very capable, they would provide an asset to any society in which they found themselves and yet they are in absolutely dire circumstances. It really is an amazing situation," he said.

Forty seven percent of Iraqi refugees are women facing particularly difficult circumstances. Johnstone says women make up 20 percent of all heads of families, taking care of children because so many men have been killed in some way in conflict in Iraq.

Despite progress in negotiations with host governments that has allowed increasing numbers of refugee children to attend school, Johnstone points to a climate of fear among Iraqi parents that doing so will make them more vulnerable to forced return at some point.

The Bush administration has faced sharp criticism over the number of Iraqis approved for resettlement in the United States, with reports last month quoting State Department statistics that U.S. admissions had declined since last October.

Johnstone, an American, hopes that will change, but he is skeptical. "One can afford to be skeptical looking at the slow start that they have. I do see that the Department of Homeland Security is far more mobilized today then it was two months ago on the issue," he said.

Subcommittee chairman, Democratic Congressman William Delahunt, is among lawmakers who say the United States bears a special obligation. "This sad reality imposes a moral responsibility on this administration and this Congress, for we cannot deny that the proximate cause of this human tragedy is the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. It is believed by many that this is an American-made crisis," he said.

Republican Dana Rohrabacher disagrees, saying the problem is not America's alone but an international humanitarian issue.

U.N. statistics show a decline in the number of Iraqis returning home in recent months.

International Organization for Migration (I.O.M.) official Rafiz Tschannen says that as internal displacement rates in Iraq have significantly declined, in part due to improved security, the rate of internal displacement now slightly exceeds the rate of return from other countries.

Whether or not refugee flows out of Iraq pick up again, Tschannen says insufficient international financial contributions place Iraqis in jeopardy. "Funding remains insufficient. IOM has barely received 28 percent of its $85-million appeal for IDP [internally displaced people], with the U.S. too often being the largest donor, and the one whose support has been the most consistent. But lack of funding remains," he said.

In his testimony Tuesday, Deputy U.N. refugee commissioner Johnstone said Jordan and Syria have shouldered most of the Iraqi refugee burden, and should be thanked for their generosity.

But despite their support, he says the international community must take advantage of a window of opportunity to step up financial assistance, and take advantage of improved security in Iraq, to deal with the refugee situation, keeping in mind that new refugee flows are always a possibility.