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U.S.: Complexities of Iraqi refugee processing
NewsNotes, July-August 2009

The following article was written by Anthony Cortese, an intern with the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, and is based on information from Cathy Breen, a former Maryknoll lay missioner who has lived and worked with Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria for the past several years.

Over two million refugees have fled Iraq since the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The majority of these refugees have found sanctuary in neighboring countries, while others have been welcomed in places such as Sweden and Australia. The U.S. had admitted fewer than 800 Iraqi refugees from 2003 until the middle of 2007.

In response to pressure from refugee rights and religious organizations, the U.S. initiated “large scale Iraqi refugee processing” in February 2007. Since then, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) has significantly increased the number of Iraqi refugees admitted into the U.S.

Despite this progress, many Iraqi refugees applying for asylum in the U.S. are extremely frustrated by the process, particularly when they have family members in the U.S. ready to receive them or when they are rejected on unexplained grounds of “credibility” or “persecution of others.”

In the case of one family recently rejected by Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the father when asked couldn’t produce his military document. He mentioned that the U.S. had given a 48-hour evacuation order over Iraqi TV right before the bombing of Baghdad. In response, his family fled to the north and returned two months later to their home, which had been burglarized. Among the things stolen was the father’s military document, but the DHS interviewer did not believe his story. What was particularly painful was that the interviewer asked him, “Why didn’t you report that the document was stolen to the police?” evidently unaware that absolutely no police or any form of security was available to report to at that time.

Another family of nine living in Damascus was apparently rejected by an interviewer because the man’s military document stated that he worked as a “cook,” when in reality he worked at a military base overseeing management of the cafeteria – purely a clerical job. Originally hired to be a cook, his military supervisor saw that he had a degree in hotel management and simply put his education to use. The DHS interviewer did not accept this story and rejected the family for lack of “credibility.”
When asked if they had any sense during the 1½ hour interview with a DHS representative that there were any discrepancies or misunderstandings, a member of another family replied, “No. In fact, the interviewer said ‘very good’ after each question.” When this particular family received their rejection form letter with “credibility” checked, the mother literally collapsed and had to be taken to the hospital. Her mother lives in Detroit, and her husband’s brother lives in Detroit.

When these and similar cases were later presented to representatives of the Refugee Affairs Division at DHS, they promised to follow up on each. They also pointed out that interviewers are specially trained to work with traumatized Iraqi refugees. Interviews are supposed to be non-adversarial and officers are supposed to point out “inconsistencies" they have detected, giving an applicant an opportunity to explain. Each decision by an interviewer is reviewed the same day by a supervisor and can be appealed within 90 days.

According to DHS, army service or Baath Party membership does not cause automatic disqualification, yet if the applicant ever served in a situation where there was known to be persecution of others by anyone it will be difficult for them to get a U.S. visa. There is no “under duress” exemption. (Despite ample legal precedent since World War II, exclusion for “persecution of others” has not always been applied by the U.S. For example, in the wake of horrendous human rights violations by Central American security forces during the 1980s, many high level military officials were given asylum.)

People who accompany Iraqi refugees describe the devastation of those who are rejected for reasons that they feel are unreasonable and unjust and that remain unexplained on post-interview forms.

Although the U.S. refugee processing method has improved greatly, these human stories underscore the importance of advocating for its just and transparent implementation. No adequate restitution is possible for Iraqis’ suffering, but a welcome to the country responsible for their displacement and a serious commitment to support Iraqi-led reconstruction of their homeland might help.

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