U.S. pledges to keep taking in Iraqi refugees

Wed Nov 18, 2009 5:37pm EST

* Iraqi government needs to do "much more" -- Schwartz

* At least 17,000 Iraqi refugees expected in U.S. next year



By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

DAMASCUS, Nov 18 (Reuters) - The United States will take in "substantial" numbers of Iraqi refugees next year, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Eric Schwartz said on Wednesday.

Speaking in Syria, where hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have fled conflict in their homeland, Schwartz said Washington would focus on the "most vulnerable".

The U.S.-led invasion that removed Saddam Hussein from power displaced more than 4 million Iraqis. Many have returned, but the U.N. High Commissioner for refugees has said the country remains too unstable to absorb the 1.5 million refugees still living outside its borders, mostly in Jordan and Syria.

"I am confident that we will sustain, generally speaking, our level of effort on resettlement, if not do better," said Schwartz, whose portfolio includes refugees and migration.

"The bigger challenge for us is to ensure that those Iraqis we do resettle have adequate and generous support upon arrival. The United States like most other countries has been experiencing very difficult economic circumstances," he added.

Schwartz said he expected at least 17,000 Iraqis to be resettled in the United States during fiscal year 2010, which ends in September, compared with almost 19,000 this year, who included 6,000 living in Syria.

The United States took in around 14,000 Iraqi refugees in fiscal 2008 but only 1,200 in 2007.

Sweden, which now holds the European Union presidency and has taken in 40,000 Iraqi asylum seekers since 2006, has said the issue should be a priority for the West.



ONUS ON IRAQ

"There were very legitimate concerns that the United States was not doing its fair share. Over the past couple of years the United States has demonstrated its commitment to this issue. The numbers we're resettling are now significant and substantial," Schwartz said, adding that the U.S. government had allocated $386 million in aid for Iraqi refugees in fiscal 2009.

"We recognise that resettlement is not the solution for the vast number of Iraqis or other refugees. There are 16 million refugees in the world. There has got to be a solution for those (Iraqi) refugees who are for a variety of reasons the most vulnerable," he added.

Schwartz said the U.S.-backed Iraqi government needed to do "much more" to help Iraqis who want to return home, including those who had fled to Syria.

Relations between Washington and the Syrian government have improved this year, but Damascus remains under U.S. sanctions.

Schwartz said that in his meeting on Wednesday with Deputy Syrian Foreign Minister Fayssal al-Mekdad he discussed assistance for Iraqi refugees and allowing more humanitarian aid groups in Syria into help them.