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          Sep. 20, 2014



Iraqis seeking refugee status shouldn’t be allowed to remain in limbo


Kurdish Peshmerga fighters hold a position on the front line in the Gwer district, 40 kilometres south of Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. (Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)


WHEN THE marauding fighters known as the Islamic State seemed to be on an inexorable march through Iraq this summer, the United States evacuated personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad as a security precaution. One consequence was that the embassy stopped conducting interviews for Iraqis seeking refugee status in the United States. About 36,000 people are waiting for interviews, which are essential for approval. The administration ought to make an extra push to get this process back on track.

These Iraqis, now in limbo, are people affiliated with the United States over more than a decade of war. Those who qualify for refugee status include Iraqis who worked with U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations and the news media; people who worked for the U.S. government, including the military, and its contractors, and their family members; Iraqis from religious minorities, and Iraqis who have immediate family members in the United States. In short, these are people who deserve support in their quest to come to these shores.
In this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, some 10,000 Iraqis inside the country and 9,500 beyond had completed the process and have come to the United States or will be coming soon. This fiscal year will probably be the largest ever for Iraqis seeking to reach the United States in this program. Overall, 110,000 have arrived since the effort was begun in 2007.

But many were left behind when the doors closed to interviews June 15. State Department officials express an eagerness to resume. They told us they want to return to the Baghdad embassy and conduct interviews there, as before. However, no timetable exists for such a return, and it depends on the security situation. It would be wrong to do something imprudent. At the same time, the hopes of 36,000 people are hanging in the balance. Some pathway needs to be created for them to complete the application process. If an Iraqi’s life is in danger, flight abroad might be possible but risky. Another option might be to restart interviews at the U.S. consulate in Irbil, a relatively calm city in Iraqi Kurdistan where many people have sought a safe harbor since the upheaval of last summer. Although this is not the first choice at the State Department, it might be better than allowing applications to languish without action.

If the refugee application process remains disrupted for long, it will allow the radicals of the Islamic State to hold a gun to the head of the United States and will negatively affect Iraqis who worked shoulder to shoulder with Americans during years of conflict. As the Pentagon and other agencies contemplate a return to Iraq to fight the Islamic State, how many will raise their hand to volunteer — and risk their lives — if the United States cannot take care of those who served last time?