WASHINGTON (AFP) — Current US efforts to help resettle Iraqi refugees are slow, poorly funded and ignore Syria which hosts the largest number of displaced people, refugee and human rights advocates said on Tuesday.
Around 2.4 million Iraqis have been forced to flee their country since the US-led invasion in 2003, creating massive crises in neighboring Syria, which has 1.4 million refugees, and Jordan which has up to 750,000.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that another two million people have been displaced inside Iraq.
Sarnata Reynolds, refugee program director for Amnesty International, told reporters that given those numbers, the US vow to host as many as 12,000 Iraqi refugees by next year is "a token gesture."
Washington announced last week its plans for the fiscal year 2008 "include processing enough Iraqi refugees to admit 12,000."
Meanwhile, US President George W. Bush told US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in an official memorandum that the United States looked to welcome a maximum of 80,000 refugees over the next 12 months.
But advocates said those numbers were unlikely to be realized.
Of the 200,000 refugees who have been registered by UN refugee groups and the US government in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, 11,000 have been selected for referral from UN agencies to US government agencies, and around half of those people have not even begun the process.
"We have quite a few people who are trapped in the in-between process. We have about 5,000 people who have not even begun the interview yet with the Department of Homeland Security," said Anastasia Brown, director of refugee programs at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Most of the displaced people have to go through a four-step UNHCR and US government interview process involving security and medical checks which can take up to a year, Brown said.
Interviews are painstakingly slow, with a handful of officers in each nearby country able to handle a maximum of four interviews per day.
And political tensions between the United States and Syria are only delaying the already long process.
"A current huge problem is that we do not have authorized visas for DHS interviewing officers in Syria," Brown said.
"We have a fairly high number of cases from Syria which we have not been able to get to. The people who have been referred from Syria are considered highly vulnerable."
Meanwhile, Syria last week moved to enforce new restrictions on Iraqi refugees, effectively cutting off the last outside haven for people fleeing violence in Iraq, the UN refugee agency said, lamenting the lack of foreign aid as "completely out of proportion to the dimension of the crisis."
Jake Kurtzer, congressional advocate at Refugees International, said his group was pressing for 1.4 billion dollars to be added to help fund refugee aid as part of a 190 billion dollar "war on terror" US supplemental spending bill.
The money would create an "assistance package that will help host governments provide basic services necessary for the refugees," Kurtzer said.
"The money would go to Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt," he said, specifying that 700 million dollars of the total would go to Jordan with 100 million dollars each for Lebanon and Egypt.
"It does leave out Syria at this point in time. Given certain concerns we felt that bilateral aid was not the right thing for us to support," he said urging "other countries including our European allies" to help out.
US-Syria diplomatic ties are chilly amid US accusations that Syria has allowed militants to cross its border into Iraq and is supporting a political assassination campaign in neighboring Lebanon.
Syria denies involvement and accuses the United States of stirring turmoil in the region due to its invasion of Iraq.
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