WASHINGTON – The Bush administration agreed Wednesday to greatly expand the number of Iraqi refugees allowed into the country and to pay more to help Iraq’s Arab neighbors cope with the human tide fleeing increasing violence and economic hardship in their country.
The decision to allow about 7,000 Iraqis to come to the United States answers mounting political and diplomatic pressure on the administration to do more to remedy the consequences of a war it largely started. Only 202 Iraqis were allowed in last year.
The administration also said it will immediately contribute $18 million for a worldwide resettlement and relief program. The United Nations has asked for $60 million from nations around the world.
Although the United Nations estimates that 3.8 million Iraqis have fled their homes since the war began nearly four years ago, the United States has allowed only about 600 to settle in the United States.
The U.S. proposal also includes plans to offer special treatment for Iraqis still in their country whose cooperation with the U.S. puts them at risk. Expanding visa programs for those Iraqis would require legislation in Congress, State Department Undersecretary Paula J. Dobriansky said Wednesday.
Some 2 million Iraqis have left their country, and an additional 1.8 million are believed to have relocated inside Iraq.
The United Nations says most of those who have been uprooted have no desire to come to the United States and want to return to their homes in Iraq when fighting stops.
But allies, U.N. diplomats and lawmakers of both parties have recently told the administration that the small number of Iraqis the U.S. has allowed in looks miserly.
The move is a step in the right direction, considering the United States is a “chief cause” of the refugee problem, said Carolyn Saour, an Iraqi-American Christian living in Houston. Still, 7,000 “is severely low for the amount of damage that’s been done over the years,” she said.
The United Nations wants to resettle 20,000 of the most vulnerable refugees this year. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres called the U.S. pledge “a relevant contribution.”
The U.N. estimates that 40,000 to 50,000 people flee Iraq each month with dwindling options of where to go. Most have fled to Syria and Jordan, both of which have recently tried to restrict the influx. Nearly 1 million Iraqi refugees have fled to Syria alone.
Some Iraqi refugees living in Syria dismissed the U.S. refugee plan, saying they preferred to stay closer to home and planned to return to Iraq.
“We live in Syria temporarily and will go back to our country when the situation there quiets,” said Saif Thaher, a 22-year-old refugee who runs a taxi service between Damascus and Baghdad.