Photo: Iraqi refugees still in the Middle East but escaping the violence (ASSIST News Service)
SEQUIM, WA (ANS) -- Hundreds of Christians fleeing persecution in Iraq have had their bid to resettle in the United States dashed by new security measures.
According to Baltimore-based refugee resettlement agency World Relief, 14,000 refugees have been placed “on hold” overseas since June, creating a “massive” backlog.
Most of them are Iraqis fleeing troubles in Iraq – and about 40 percent of them are persecuted Christians, said World Relief’s Jenny Yang.
Hundreds of refugees – unable to return home because of fears for their safety – have been denied entry to the U.S. as authorities seek to weed out potential terrorists, Yang said.
The clampdown began after two Iraqis were arrested in Kentucky in May and charged with aiding al Qaeda in Iraq.
Beefed-up background checks have clogged the refugee pipeline, preventing Iraqi Christians and others from receiving clearance to come to the U.S., said Yang, the agency’s advocacy director.
Refugee admissions into the U.S. have nosedived in recent months since the enhanced U.S. Department of Homeland Security checks were introduced, according to David Mills, World Relief’s refugee program manager, who said the agency’s caseload was slashed by a third.
U.S. refugee admissions fell drastically following the 9/11 attacks, but picked up in recent years, approaching pre-9/11 levels.
Nearly half of all Iraqi refugees – 47 percent – were being denied entry to the U.S. because of the new security measures which block anyone with “irregularities” in their case review, Mills said. Irregularities – such as gaps in documentation – are common because many refugees flee their homes at a moment’s notice, often with no official papers. Many Middle Easterners, Iraqis in particular, have similar names and a refugee can be mistakenly confused with a name on a terror watchlist.
“We’ve heard of an 80-year-old grandmother being denied [entry],” Mills said.
The precise reason why individuals are refused refugee status in the U.S. is unclear, Yang said. “When we’ve raised these cases, we’ve not gotten any clear reasons yet,” she said. “It’s causing a lot of confusion.”
Victims of persecution include those who are harassed or discriminated against and those threatened with physical violence or imprisonment because of their religious beliefs.
The clampdown is especially hurting Iraqi Chaldean Christians, according to Rafat Ita, a social worker in the Detroit area where 160,000 Chaldeans live – the largest settlement outside Iraq.
“These [Christian refugees] cannot go back to Iraq because they could be killed,” he said. “Now they are stuck in neighboring countries where they cannot work, cannot go to school and cannot worship freely. The only hope they have is to come to America and now that hope is in ruins.”
Ita, an Iraqi Chaldean immigrant who works with Lutheran Social Services, said refugee admissions had slowed to a trickle and he does not see the situation changing any time soon.
Iraqi Christians living in the Detroit area are desperate to be reunited with close family members stranded overseas.
“We’re not a violent group,” Ita said. “We’re Christians who believe in peace.”
Meanwhile, Christians and others fleeing religious persecution in Iran have hit a stumbling block to beginning a new life in America, traditionally a place of refuge for Iranian evangelicals fearful for their lives.
Hundreds of persecuted Iranian Christians are in limbo in Austria after the sudden halt of a U.S. program aimed at protecting religious minorities. Since 1989, the U.S. program has given asylum to 440,000 persecuted Christians and others from Iran, as well as Christians and Jews from the former Soviet Union.
More than a hundred members of the U.S. Congress are pushing for the program to be re-started, calling it “a critical safety valve.”
Julian Lukins, a former daily newspaper reporter in the UK, is a writer and journalist based in Washington State. He has reported extensively on Christian persecution and other issues affecting Christians worldwide. He can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected].
Publication date: November 20, 2011