U.S. says clears way for new Iraqi refugees

By Jeremy Pelofsky

WASHINGTON, May 29 (Reuters) - A small group of Iraqis seeking refuge from the violence in their country has been granted permission to move to the United States, months after withering criticism over slow U.S. help for refugees.

After finalizing new security screening procedures for Iraqis, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said on Tuesday it had approved entry for 59 individuals and had interviewed scores more.

"The new security screening procedures will facilitate our progress while ensuring that terrorists do not enter this country," DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said in the statement.

"Applicants will not be admitted if doubts arise about whether they pose a security risk."

The agency said it was evaluating the applications of more than 700 Iraqis and could accept as many as 7,000 refugees through the 2007 fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated some 2 million Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries, mainly Syria and Jordan, before and since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, with another 2 million Iraqis internally displaced.

Sectarian violence has prompted Iraqis to seek sanctuary in neighboring countries and the United States. Some Iraqis who worked with the U.S.-led coalition that ousted Saddam Hussein have also faced threats.

In February, the Bush administration came under criticism from Congress for accepting only 466 Iraqi refugees since 2003.

"The big hang-up has been DHS, which took several months to complete its screening procedures," Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International, said in a telephone interview.

"DHS officials have assured me even today that they have teams of folks ready to go out to the region and start interviewing people who have applied for resettlement as quickly as possible."

Congress has also pushed the administration to act.

The House of Representatives last week approved legislation granting special immigration visas to hundreds of Iraqi and Afghan translators whose lives were endangered because they helped U.S. forces. The bill passed the Senate earlier.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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