WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has surpassed its goal of admitting 12,000 Iraqi refugees this year and expects more, perhaps tens of thousands, next year, the State Department said on Friday.
The United States expects to admit a minimum of 17,000 Iraqi refugees in fiscal 2009, which begins October 1, the department's senior coordinator for refugees said. Thousands more Iraqis and their family members could arrive through a special visa program for people who worked for the United States or its contractors.
"I think you'll see the U.S. government admitting over the course of fiscal 2009 tens of thousands of Iraqis into the United States," coordinator James Foley told reporters.
Up to 3,000 could come from Baghdad, where the United States began interviews this year, he said.
So far this year, 12,118 Iraqi refugees have arrived and 1,000 more are booked to travel to the United States by the end of this month, when the U.S. fiscal year ends, he said.
That marks a huge leap from just 1,600 Iraqis admitted in the previous year. That number drew widespread criticism from refugee groups that said Washington should do more to help millions of Iraqis who have fled instability and violence since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
The number is still lower than what some other countries have taken. Sweden, a country of 9 million people, has admitted over 40,000 Iraqis since 2003.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates 2 million Iraqis are living abroad, mostly in neighboring Jordan and Syria. Some 2.5 million are internally displaced.
One refugee advocacy group, Human Rights First, said it welcomed the news Washington had met its target for Iraqi arrivals in 2008 but that the "low" goal of resettling 17,000 refugees in fiscal 2009 should be raised to at least 30,000.
"The number of Iraqi refugees we have welcomed to our shores is still just a fraction of those in need," said Amelia Templeton of the New York-based group. She said the U.N. refugee agency estimated that 85,000 Iraqi refugees from the most vulnerable groups would need resettlement next year.
Foley called on the government of oil-rich Iraq to do more to help Iraqi refugees abroad as well as plan for returning Iraqis by addressing their needs for security, social services and property compensation.
So far, he said, Iraq had spent only about $25 million to help its refugees abroad, and provided about $200 million for an initiative to help returning refugees. The latter amount was "rather small," considering the number of Iraqi refugees and the improving security situation inside Iraq, Foley said.
"One cannot rule out in these situations the possibility that the refugees in large numbers themselves will decide it's time to go back, but will the Iraqi government be ready for that? That's what we have to prepare for I think," Foley said.
The United States spent over $318 million in humanitarian aid for Iraqi refugees this year, Foley said. Washington sought support from other donors, "particularly in the region, not to mention, the government of Iraq itself."
Foley said he was grateful that Syria, a country with which the United States has strained relations, had agreed to a new facility for refugee processing, which would enable Washington to handle larger numbers of refugees.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)