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Numbers of Iraqi refugees to US fall far shorter than anticipated

By Heather Yamour WASHINGTON, Aug 31 (KUNA) -- The US has so far welcomed as little as 190 Iraqi refugees this year, a number that fell far shorter than the Administration had previously declared, with both relief agencies and the Bush Administration pointing to bureaucratic red tape as one of the main - but not the only - obstacles.
Offering no clear policy on the number of Iraqi refugees it wants to bring to the US, the Bush Administration has over the past year given different numbers of Iraqis expected to resettle in the US.
At the end of 2006, the US announced plans to bring 7,000 in 2007 alone. In April this year, Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey gave a much higher number saying as many as 20,000 referred by the UNHCR could arrive.
However, the Bush Administration has now downsized that number again, saying only 1,800 will set foot in the US by September and an additional 1,000 by the end of the year.
With the arrival of 190 Iraqis to the US, a number exasperated, US lawmakers joined other countries in adding pressure on the Bush Administration to take the lead in housing refugees -- especially Republicans, who have introduced legislations like "special immigrant visas" to pave the way for a smooth flow of Iraqis coming into the US.
In early August, the State Department announced that they had preliminarily approved almost 3,000 Iraqis and expected "many hundreds" to arrive within weeks.
With the different figures given, the US appeared to have failed to meet its commitment to any number it had previously promised, and only 190 had so far made it to the country; a country that has the largest military presence in Iraq and was bringing in the smallest number of those fleeing security chaos and seeking refuge.
By comparison, the number of refugees who fled to neighboring Syria has reached about 1.5 million, according to UN figures, against 750,000 in Jordan, 150,000 in Egypt, 50,000 in Iran and 20,000 in Turkey.
The UN said 50,000 to 60,000 Iraqis flee monthly, making it the third-largest and fastest-growing refugee population in the world.
The Administration cited long procedural processes as the main factors behind the inability to meet its commitment, blaming the processing delay on what it called lengthy and mandatory security and health screening process conducted by the Department of Homeland Security and technical issues like obtaining exit permits and visas for Iraqis in countries like Jordan and Syria.
A State Department official, who asked not to be named, defended the Administration's policy on Iraqi refugees, telling KUNA that as many as 2,000 refugees may arrive by the end of September, followed by an additional 1,000 by the end of the year.
By next month, the Administration expects a "flow of Iraqis at a steady pace," the official said.
But some refugee organizations expressed doubt the US would be able to bring the 2,000 anticipated by State Department officials.
"I don't believe we are going to make it," said Joseph Roberson, director of the Immigration and Refugee Program for Church World Services, one of the 10 different agencies contacted by the government to assist incoming refugees.
"Our expectation was that altogether there would be at least 2,000 by the end of September and I don't believe we are going to make that. Even trying to move 1,500 by the end of September would be very difficult now," Roberson said.
This year, Church World Services, which handles 11 percent of all Iraqi refugees coming into the US, received only 19 cases, of which nearly half arrived in August.
Other relief agencies are growing frustrated at the creeping number of Iraqis given asylum, and want more to be done particularly for those facing persecution and the threat of violence for aiding US forces in Iraq.
"The numbers have started to trickle in but they are not steady," said Joseph Kassab, executive director for the Chaldean Federation of America, an umbrella organization that oversees several Iraqi Christian relief agencies that has seen 70 to 100 refugees come in the past month.
Calling the low numbers as "anemic" and "unacceptable," Kassab compared between the handling of the Iraqi refugee crisis and the response to Hurricane Katrina by the Bush Administration.
"Just like Hurricane Katrina, they were not prepared and that's why we had this chaos on our hands and the same thing is taking place with Iraqi refugees because of the war," he added.
"We are expecting a lot more for next month but this is just a drop in the bucket to the 2.2 million refugees, and they need the relief," Kassab said, blaming the delay on the lack of manpower and information technology to verify these Iraqi refugees.
This is the second wave of Iraqi refugees seeking asylum the US. In the early 1990s, tens of thousands of Iraqis resettled to the US and the Chaldean Federation estimates over 400,000 Iraqis are now living in the US, mostly in New Jersey, Michigan, California, Arizona, Illinois, and Tennessee.
In Iraq, according to humanitarian organizations, the Iraqi Red Crescent and the UN's International Organization for Migration, the number of Iraqis internally displaced has soared since the troop surge in February, reaching 1.
1 million particularly in Baghdad the surge was concentrated, suggesting the Iraqi refugee crisis would likely get worse before it got better. (end) hy.ema KUNA 310859 Aug 07NNNN