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Letter to Ambassador Foley and Lori Scialabba on Iraqi refugees

September 20, 2007

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Ambassador James B. Foley  
Senior Coordinator for Iraqi Refugee Issues  
U.S. Department of State  
2201 C St., NW  
Washington, DC 20520  
 
Ms. Lori Scialabba  
Senior Advisor for Iraqi Refugee Affairs  
U.S. Department of Homeland Security  
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services  
20 Massachusetts Ave., NW  
Washington, DC 20529  
 
Dear Ambassador Foley and Ms. Scialabba:  
 
Congratulations on your appointments as senior coordinator for Iraqi refugee issues and senior advisor for Iraqi refugee affairs, respectively. We wish you great success in these new positions.  
 
Human Rights Watch has been particularly concerned about Iraq’s neighbors closing their doors to Iraqis at their borders, thereby frustrating their right to seek asylum. We look forward to working with you to develop ways to keep those doors open. Our concern extends to Palestinian and Iranian refugees in Iraq who are particularly vulnerable. We are also concerned about growing numbers of internally displaced people in Iraq who are not being adequately protected or assisted.  
 
Our immediate concern is Syria’s decision to impose a strict visa regime on Iraqis, and the prospect that the last remaining door to escape is now closing. The Syrian government explicitly cited as its reason for shutting the door on Iraqi refugees the lack of international support. “No one in the international community is helping us,” a Syrian government spokesman told the Financial Times. “The Syrian government can no longer shoulder the responsibility alone.”  
 
Since Syria remains ineligible for bilateral assistance as a state sponsor of terrorism, assistance to Iraqi refugees in Syria has been limited. The U.S. bar on assistance to Syria has also limited Washington’s flexibility to encourage and support Syria when it was doing the right thing by allowing refugees in.  
 
We would like to recommend several steps that you might consider that would make the United States more responsive to Iraqi refugees and more supportive of first asylum in the region. First, the U.S. needs to acknowledge that it has a particular responsibility toward Iraqi refugees because of its military intervention in Iraq and shelve its self-imposed 30 percent limit on U.S. contributions to U.N. humanitarian appeals on their behalf. By increasing its support for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies, the U.S. would be able to provide more support for Iraqi refugees in Syria, something that it cannot now do bilaterally.  
 
In the upcoming supplemental appropriation for the war in Iraq, the administration should revise its request for Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons far beyond the $35 million currently being requested (less than $9 per Iraqi refugee and displaced person). The administration should also work much more vigorously to encourage and enable nongovernmental humanitarian organizations to operate projects in Syria as a way of emphasizing the need not to punish Iraqi refugees simply for being in Syria, and to encourage Syria to reverse its policy and once again welcome the refugees.  
 
We echo the concern expressed in Ambassador Crocker’s September 7 cable that the slow pace of U.S. refugee resettlement is contributing to a “deteriorating protection environment” in neighboring countries. We urge you to persuade President Bush personally to take the step of welcoming Iraqi refugees to the United States, particularly those who put their lives on the line to support American troops.  
 
While Ambassador Crocker’s several suggestions for speeding up U.S. refugee processing should be adopted, the U.S. should also try other, more creative approaches to help the overwhelming majority of refugees who will never be resettled here. In particular, the U.S. should work with the Arab League, the European Union and other partners to establish a voluntary resettlement program to relocate hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees from Syria and Jordan to other countries in the region. Such a program would provide temporary host countries with financial incentives and other support to build their infrastructures and accommodate the refugees until they can go home safely.  
 
We hope that in your new positions you might be able to look at the refugee problem more creatively and proactively so that solutions such as this might be considered. The aim of U.S. refugee programs in the region should be the preservation of the right to seek asylum. This can only be done if the neighboring countries—particularly Syria and Jordan—are assured of the support of the international community, under the leadership of the United States. It is imperative to find ways to support Jordan and Syria more effectively and relieve them of the burden they are shouldering while at the same time protecting the rights and attending to the needs of Iraqi refugees and displaced people.  
 
We welcome the opportunity to discuss these problems with you further and to work together to provide protection and assistance to Iraqi refugees and displaced people.  
 
Sincerely,  
 
/s/  
Bill Frelick  
Refugee Policy Director  
 
 
/s/  
Tom Malinowski  
Washington Advocacy Director  
 
 
CC: Secretary Michael Chertoff  
Under Secretary Stewart A. Baker  
Under Secretary Paula J. Dobriansky  
Assistant Secretary Ellen R. Sauerbrey  

 

 
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