Thursday, July 19, 2007

No Friend Left Behind Update

Our allies are alert to the realities. "It's the right thing to do."

Before withdrawing its 480 combat troops from Iraq next month, Denmark is pulling out about a dozen Iraqi interpreters and their families.

The translators have worked with the Danes in the southern city of Basra, a risky job that has turned them into traitors in the eyes of militants fighting the U.S.-led coalition. The government decided in June to offer all the interpreters working for Danish forces a chance to seek asylum.

The United States and Britain have been reluctant to accept large numbers of Iraqi asylum-seekers — including those who worked for their military or civilian operations. The Danish move came only after months of heated debate.

"It's the right thing to do," said Capt. Joergen Christian Nyholm, who returned to Denmark in February after commanding a mechanized infantry company in Basra for six months. "My personal opinion is that they are at a pretty high risk."

The issue of what to do with translators and other aides to coalition forces highlights the larger question of Iraqi refugees.

Since the start of the war, some 2 million Iraqis have fled to neighboring Syria and Jordan. An equal number are displaced within Iraq. Only a fraction has been admitted to the West, which fears a flood of refugees or letting in potential terrorists.

"It is very difficult to acknowledge the seriousness of the Iraqi refugee crisis without conceding the extent of the policy failures in Iraq which have precipitated the crisis," said Tom Porteous, London director of Human Rights Watch.

Ironically, Sweden, which isn't even part of the coalition, has taken in more Iraqi refugees than any other Western country has — though it is now tightening its asylum rules.

The United States has admitted fewer than 800 Iraqis since the start of the war but has promised to take in nearly 7,000 more starting later this year.

"We're working aggressively to try to process Iraqi refugees who have been classified as refugees by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said this month. "While we want to meet our humanitarian obligations here, we also want to make sure we do so in such a way that our borders and the American people are protected."

Particularly at risk are the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have worked for — or are currently employed by — U.S.-led coalition members. Their work has involved everything from translating to driving. Many of their colleagues have died in attacks directed at coalition forces; others have been abducted and killed outside of work.

"These people are particularly targeted, and of course people know who they are," said Bjarte Vandvik, secretary-general of the European Council of Refugees and Exiles.

One Iraqi refugee living in Stockholm, Sweden, said he quit his job for a Baghdad construction company in June 2005 after it was contracted to do work for U.S. troops at the Al-Taji military base. He worried that working for the Americans would make him a target for militants — fears that proved well-founded three months later when the head of the company was killed, he said.

"It was very dangerous," said the 42-year-old engineer. "There was only one road to get there, and anyone could watch you go in." He asked not to be named because he feared for the safety of family members still living in Iraq.

In May, a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives proposed that over the next four years the U.S. accept up to 60,000 Iraqis who worked for at least a year with the U.S. or U.N., affiliated contractors or subcontractors or American-based non-governmental organizations. The Senate is considering similar legislation.

Translators may get special attention. In June, the U.S. government launched a resettlement program to process Iraqis living in Jordan who have worked as translators for the U.S. government or military or who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority. The program provides a way to apply for refugee status separate from the UNHCR referral process and will be run by the International Organization for Migration.

Britain granted asylum outright to about 100 Iraqi individuals and families from 2003 to 2005, the latest year for which statistics are available, according to reports posted on the Home Office Web site. In addition, more than 2,500 Iraqis who were not recognized as refugees were allowed to stay in the country on a temporary basis.

The initial refusal rate for applications from Iraq in 2005 was 91 percent, though the number accepted may have risen after appeals. The Home Office said final figures after appeals for Iraqi applications were not available.

Smaller European allies are also grappling with the issue.

Poland has a few dozen Iraqis working for its 900 troops in the Qadisiyah and Wasit provinces. The current mission ends Dec. 31 and could be extended, but Defense Ministry spokesman Jaroslaw Rybak said the government is already discussing how to deal with the interpreters in the event of a withdrawal.

"We are aware of the problem and we are working on it," he said. "We will not leave these people alone."

Spain, which withdrew from Iraq in 2004, offered asylum to dozens of Iraqis who helped Spanish troops or diplomats, the government said.

The Foreign Ministry in Italy, which pulled out of Iraq in 2005, could not say whether it had made any similar offer.

Czech Defense Ministry spokeswoman Jan Pejsek said that country, which has 90 troops under British command in southern Iraq, had no plans to make any special arrangements for the "few translators" working for the Czechs. "This may change when we'll be pulling out," he added.

In Denmark, pressure intensified on the government to do something for the 22 interpreters working for the Danish troops after reports surfaced this spring that an Iraqi interpreter working for a Danish aid agency was abducted and killed.

In June, Defense Minister Soeren Gade said most of them would be given entry visas so that they could travel to Denmark and apply for asylum here. The asylum claims are considered likely to be approved. The remainder wanted to stay in the Middle East but will be offered financial help or jobs at Danish missions.

An additional 130 Iraqis who had worked with the Danish military, Foreign Ministry or police could be considered for similar help, the government said.

Refugee groups welcomed the Danish plan, which even won the approval of the Danish People's Party, a nationalist party on whose support the center-right government depends.

"We had the new reports from our intelligence that stated that these people would be executed and liquidated after the Danish troops had departed, and that was of course a threat that we could not live with, so we had to change our position," said Soeren Espersen, the party's foreign policy spokesman.

At the Army Operational Command in Karup, western Denmark, Nyholm recalled how an interpreter lent a helping hand during an ambush on Dec. 28 in northern Basra.

"One of my machine gunners ran out of ammo," Nyholm said. "He was looking down his armored personnel carrier for more ammo, but the interpreter had already prepared it for him."

He added, laughing: "That was not expected, but he was maybe also fighting for his life."

Too bad the reporters saved the most telling anecdote for the end.