Program to Resettle Iraqis In US Comes Under Fire
Ambassador charges US policy brings criminals, other misfits, to the States
DURING the past four years, the United States has led international efforts to resettle tens of thousands of Iraqi army defectors, prisoners of war, and families fleeing the carnage of the Gulf war and Saddam Hussein's subsequent crackdown on rebellious Iraqi Shiites.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, senior US officials say that a good idea has gone bad. According to top diplomats and officials at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the US has admitted Iraqis whose claims for refugee status are questionable. Some are committing what one US ambassador describes as ''grave criminal offenses'' once they reach the US.
''Something is very wrong with the Iraqi refugee-resettlement program,'' US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Raymond Mabus Jr., wrote in a confidential memo to the State Department. ''The US is taking cases other countries will not even consider, refugees who have less of a chance of becoming self-sufficient and who may be more prone to problems such as spouse- and child-abuse.'' (Full text of cable, Page 18.)
On Tuesday the State Department dispatched its inspector general to Saudi Arabia, where an investigation of the resettlement program is now under way.
Department officials confirm that the future of the program is now being debated at the highest levels of the US government.
The US embassy in Riyadh fired off its cable on the problem to Washington in February after it received a computer message from the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) citing the need to begin a ''cultural orientation'' program to head off further cases of criminal activity by Iraqis resettled in the US.
Costs 'ridiculously' high
Using unusually explicit language, Ambassador Mabus called the ''cultural orientation'' of Iraqis in the Saudi camp -- a program customarily used to acquaint designated refugees with American values, mores, and taboos -- ''a nightmarishly bad idea which should be scuttled now.'' The cost ''is ridiculously high,'' he said.
''I do not see how a 'cultural orientation' can modify criminal behavior.... Pedophilia, rape, etc., are not cultural or orientations -- they are violent criminal acts,'' Mabus added.
In Washington, a State Department official confirms that the Department is aware of sex offenses committed by Iraqis resettled in the US.
Mabus's cable has ''set off all kinds of flares,'' says a senior official of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which since January 1994 has voiced ''some real concerns about the quality of cases coming before us.''
Nearly 2 million Iraqis left their country -- most to Saudi Arabia and Iran -- during the 1991 Gulf war and the Shiite insurrection in southern Iraq that followed two months later. The vast majority returned, but 32,000 settled in two Saudi Arabian camps, one for refugees, the other for prisoners of war (POWs).
Under pressure from Saudi Arabia, the US has led the effort to resettle the Saudi-based refugees. Between 6,000 and 7,000 -- over half the total number so far resettled -- have come to the US.
Twenty-five hundred more have voluntarily repatriated to Iraq; the balance have gone to 32 countries. The US's Gulf war coalition partners ''have taken a minute number of refugees,'' says Mabus, including 53 to Britain, two to Germany, and none to France.
The US, says a Saudi official, has taken many of the most qualified refugees. ''They took all of the doctors, the lawyers, and the engineers.''
Saudi Arabia -- which has never taken in refugees -- insists that the US and its coalition partners have an obligation to resettle the remaining 17,000 Iraqis in the Rafha camp, a sprawling, $100 million concrete city of houses, stores, and schools 50 miles from the Iraqi border.
''We have periodic flights to Mecca; we take them on shopping sprees. If they have skills and want to open a shop, we give them a shop and a market in which to sell their products,'' says the Saudi official.
But there are limits to the kingdom's largess and patience with the refugee community. ''We'll give them tickets if they want to leave,'' says the Saudi official.
In fact, the number of Iraqis being resettled each month is diminishing. The reason why, say US and Saudi officials, is that those who remain are less qualified in professional and other terms: They have no family ties in potential host countries; many are suspected of criminal behavior in the camps; and resettlement budgets among receiving nations are shrinking.