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U.S. caring for 10M refugees

Quarter of a million Iraqis registered for help in 2007

PHOENIX – The United States has 10 million refugees worldwide under its mandate, and there are another 20 million people who are displaced but not being assisted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, said Barbara Day, State Department domestic resettlement section chief.

Day and other top U.S. officials who oversee refugee resettlement spoke to about 250 providers of services to refugees in Arizona at the state’s Refuge Resettlement Program annual conference in Phoenix.

Most refugees are not resettled in another country, such as the United States, she said, but remain near their countries in refugee camps or in cities hoping to one day return to their homes.

Last year was a “high water mark” for refugee resettlement worldwide. She said 97,000 individuals were referred for resettlement to more than 30 countries.

The refugees represent 68 nationalities with the three largest groups the Burmese, who have fled to Thailand and Malaysia; the Bhutanese, who have fled to remote camps in Nepal to escape ethnic cleansing, and Iraqis fleeing war-torn Iraq.

So far, 2 million Iraqis have been displaced inside Iraq and she said it is hard to judge the numbers outside Iraq. An estimated 1.5 million to 2 million Iraqis are living outside Iraq in Syria, Jordan and other countries in the region.

A total of 250,000 Iraqis were registered as refugees in 2007, and since last February, 29,517 have been accepted by the United States for resettlement compared with only 600 in 2006.

And 22,000 refugees have been referred for resettlement in the U.S.

In the first half of the federal fiscal year, 12,850 Iraqis arrived in the U.S.

Many have been directly affected by the shelling in Iraq, most have seen car bombing, others have been kidnapped and tortured.

The Iraqi refugees are coming to this country as some of the most needy people among contemporary refugees, they said. The Iraqis’ family structure has been shattered by war, and unlike refugees from some other parts of the world, many may speak little English.

Barbara Strack, chief of the Refugee Affairs Division in the Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the division’s refugee officers are in the field 50 percent of the time interviewing refugee families who want to come to the United States.

Some refugee applicants have found their paperwork stalled during the required background check, which allows the U.S. to bar anyone who has provided any money or goods to terrorists.

She said increasingly exemptions are being sought and granted for refugee applicants who paid kidnappers a ransom for return of a family member who may have been tortured during captivity. The federal government has some leeway in how it interprets the ban on providing “material support” to terrorists.

If the support was provided under duress, an exemption can be sought, she said. So far, 3,600 exemptions have been granted, some to Iraqis, some to Cubans.

Strack said the agency has completed 40,000 interviews of refugee applicants in the first half of the fiscal year, which ended March 31.

“That’s an 80 percent increase over how many were interviewed in the last fiscal year,” she said.

Workers in the field conduct four to eight interviews a day.

“We have 11 or 12 teams doing interviews at one time in Vienna, where they interview Iranians; in Turkey, Jordan, Syria and Havana,” where the U.S. has a local office to handle Cuban refugee applicants, Strack said.

“We are starting an in-country interview program in Baghdad,” she said.

Pamela Green-Smith, director of the Division of Refugee Assistance in the federal Department of Health and Human Services, said Arizona is receiving $1.5 million from the department in federal funds to mitigate the impact of refugees on public services, including education.

Arizona had 2,368 new refugees arrive from 30 countries in 2007, an increase of 32 percent over 2006, Green-Smith said.

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