Asylum Program Falls Short For Iraqis Aiding U.S. Forces
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 22, 2008; Page A17
Thousands of Iraqi translators have assisted U.S. forces since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, risking their lives and leaving their families vulnerable to retaliation from insurgents who see them as accomplices of American troops.
More than 250 of the interpreters working with the United States — or with U.S. contractors — have been killed. But the U.S. asylum program for translators seeking to leave the country has fallen far short of demand and, at times, short of what other coalition countries have offered their Iraqi staff.
This month, Denmark will complete the process of granting asylum to 120 Iraqi interpreters who worked for Danish troops in Iraq, as well as their families. “Interpreters who had been working for the Danish military were given the choice of resettling within [Iraq] with financial help, of being given jobs at Danish mission in the region, or of going to Denmark to apply for asylum with their families,” said Thomas Bille Winkel, representative of the Danish Ministry of Refugee, Immigration and Integration Affairs. Most chose to go to Denmark, he said.
Denmark's rapid handling of its Iraqi employees and their families — 364 people — contrasts with the fate of thousands of Iraqis who have worked, or are working, for the U.S. government or its contractors in Iraq and who also wish to leave the country.
Initially, the U.S. asylum initiative covered only 50 individuals a year beginning in 2006, rising to 500 annually for 2007 and 2008, and scheduled to drop back to 50 next year. Through September of last year, 429 Iraqi and 71 Afghan translators — plus 482 of their family members — have been admitted to the United States as refugees, according to the State Department. An additional 43 special visas for translators were issued in October and November. The Los Angeles Times has reported that about 7,000 interpreters have worked for U.S. forces since the war began.
According to the office of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a sponsor of the refugee legislation, 257 Iraqi interpreters working for U.S. forces have been killed since the March 2003 invasion. An amendment by Kennedy to the 2008 defense authorization bill would raise the refugee cap to 5,000 interpreters over the next five years. A revised version of the bill, originally vetoed by President Bush, still contains the measure and is expected to pass.
When Denmark decided in February to withdraw its 480 ground troops from Basra by October, Danish military officers argued that the Iraqis who had worked for them for almost three years receive the opportunity to seek asylum in Denmark because their lives had been threatened in Iraq.
Two of their Iraqi translators had been killed, leading Danish officers to ask the government in February “to treat them the right way when the Danish contingent left,” Winkel said.
Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen was initially reluctant to allow the Iraqis to seek asylum, but amid growing political pressure, he decided that “we will take care of these people,” Winkel said.
Under Danish law, no one can seek political asylum from outside the country, so Danish military transports quietly flew the Iraqis to Denmark in July, August and October, where they applied for asylum. Their applications were based on the fact that they had been targeted by Iraqi militants, having worked with the Danish troops under British command in southern Iraq as part of the U.S.-led coalition.
So far, 228 Iraqis — made up of interpreters and their families — have been granted asylum by the Danish Immigration Service, and the remainder are expected to be approved this month, Winkel said.
In Denmark, the Iraqi asylum-seekers have been housed at government accommodation centers in Jutland while their applications are processed. There they are treated like any other political refugees, receiving a cash allowance from the Danish Immigration Service to cover their expenses for food and personal items, plus a special allowance for those with children.
The Iraqis receive courses to introduce them to Denmark, including an intensive language course. Employment training is also available before refugees are assigned to a municipality to establish residence. Language and other training can last up to three years.
Iraqi interpreters seeking U.S. asylum must file an application, pay a $375 fee, and provide proof that they worked for U.S. units for more than one year and a recommendation from a flag officer certifying their service and their security clearances. They must be interviewed by the departments of State and Homeland Security, either in Iraq or a neighboring country. The United States does not pay the cost of travel outside Iraq for these interviews.
In the United States, military personnel who worked with Iraqi interpreters have been the driving force behind the effort to bring them to this country. Peter Fish, an Army Reserve captain who recently returned from Iraq, has spent more than six months trying to get two interpreters who worked for his Army hospital in Iraq into the United States. On two occasions, one interpreter leaving Iraq for visa interviews in Jordan and Syria was turned back. Both times, the interviews were canceled by U.S. officials, and the interpreter was held at the airport because U.S. officials were not there to get him through passport control.
According to the State Department, the United States cannot guarantee entry to a foreign country for a visa interview. Fish said the interpreter has been told by U.S. officials that he should arrange to have the interview in Kuwait.