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U.S. admits more Iraqi refugees

  • Story Highlights
  • Number of Iraqi refugees accepted in May is most in one month for U.S.
  • U.S. needs 7,200 more by September 30 to meet 12-month goal
  • International Rescue Committee had criticized rate of acceptance
  • UNHCR estimates more than 4.7 million Iraqis have been uprooted
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From Charley Keyes
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States accepted 1,141 Iraqi refugees in May, the most the U.S. has taken in one month, and officials say they're on track to meet this fiscal year's goal of 12,000.

Ambassador James Foley, the State Department's point man on the issue, said 4,742 refugees from Iraq have entered the United States since the fiscal year began in October.

"We have really increased our refugee processing capacity," Foley said in an off-camera briefing at the State Department on Tuesday.

The State Department, having heard criticism that the U.S. was admitting Iraqi refugees too slowly, said last year that it aimed to accept 12,000 from October 2007 through September 2008.

May's number was more than half of the total for all of 2007: 1,608. But the U.S. needs to accept about 7,200 more Iraqi refugees over the next four months to meet the State Department's goal.

Foley said he expects the U.S. screening and approval of refugees to increase dramatically through September.

Iraqi refugees have been a major humanitarian problem across the Middle East. An estimated 2.5 million people have fled the country, mostly to neighboring Syria and Jordan. An additional 2 million Iraqis, and perhaps more, are displaced within Iraq.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 4.7 million Iraqis have been uprooted, more than 2.7 million of whom are displaced internally and the rest having left the country, mostly to Syria and Jordan.

Also Tuesday, President Bush signed a law ending a visa logjam for a special category of Iraqis who had worked for the United States in a variety of roles, including interpreters and translators for the U.S. military and embassy in Baghdad. A technical glitch in the language of a previous law kept it from being implemented.

The law will now allow the entry of 5,000 Iraqis each year for the next five years.

"The United States has special obligations to Iraqis who have been employed by the U.S., or who have been closely associated with U.S. efforts in Iraq, who are targeted and under threat for their work on our behalf," Foley said.

The United States only recently started screening people inside Iraq. Of the 1,141 entering the U.S. last month, only two had been screened inside their own country.

Meanwhile, efforts to encourage Iraqi refugees to return home have been mostly unsuccessful, despite reports of a decline in violence there.

"We believe there continues to be a flow in both directions, especially on the Syrian border," Foley said. "Indeed, some people are going back and forth, and some of this is business, is commerce. We do not believe there is, at present, a significant pattern of return."

He cited a recent United Nations study of about 40,000 Iraqis who returned home and were unable to resettle in their homes.

"It's fairly clear that the Iraqi government was not prepared to provide returnees with housing, with essential services that they require," he said. "So there is a lot of work that remains to be done."

Critics have admonished the United States for not accepting more Iraqi refugees since it led the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In March, the International Rescue Committee released a report saying that the United States and the global community were not paying "sufficient heed" to the refugee crisis.

The report said that the United States had done "far less than usual" in reaction to the crisis despite increasing aid.

In a release accompanying the report, the committee noted that countries such as Sweden and Denmark "have provided real help quickly" and that Sweden "has welcomed more asylum seekers than the United States and the rest of Europe combined."

The committee did not provide a figure.

However, in the report, the group said that approval rates for Iraqi asylum-seekers in the European Union member states vary between 1 and 80 percent.

"Tragically, some EU member states are still sending Iraqis back to Iraq," it said.

"With the notable exceptions of Sweden and Denmark, we see no political will to open doors wider to Iraqi refugees today," it said of EU nations.

All About IraqUnited Nations High Commissioner for RefugeesU.S. Department of State

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