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Refugees who helped US in Iraq now endangered by Trump policies

President Donald Trump [Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency]
President Donald Trump [Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency]

Iraqis who say their lives are in danger because they worked with the US occupation in Iraq fear their chances of finding refuge in the United States may vanish under a new order signed yesterday by President Donald Trump.

The order temporarily suspends the United States' main refugee program and halts visas being issued to citizens of several predominantly Muslim countries, including Iraq. It is expected to affect two programmes US lawmakers created a few years after the 2003 invasion of Iraq to help the tens of thousands of Iraqis who risked their lives helping the US occupation forces.

Trump says the order is necessary to prevent so-called Islamist militants from coming to the United States posing as refugees, but refugee advocacy groups say the lengthy screening of applicants by multiple US agencies makes this fear unfounded.

Iraqis coming to the United States under the Special Immigrant Visa program for Iraqis, which stopped accepting new applications in 2014, or the ongoing Direct Access Program for US-Affiliated Iraqis are losing hope of ever getting out.

"Mr. Trump, the new president, killed our dreams," said one Baghdad man whose wife worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as a bookkeeper.

"I don't have any hope to go to the United States," he said in a telephone interview, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by Iraq's Sunni and Shia militant groups and also out of fear of receiving unfavourable treatment by the Trump administration in any application he makes.

More than 7,000 Iraqis, many of them interpreters for the US military, have resettled in the United States under the Special Immigrant Visa program since 2008, while another 500 or so are still being processed, according to State Department figures. Another 58,000 Iraqis were awaiting interviews under the Direct Access program, according to the International Refugee Assistance Project. Tens of thousands have already arrived under the second program, but no recent total was available.

"A lot of translators were trying to get the hell out of there because they had a mark on their head for working with US forces," Allen Vaught, a former US Army captain who went to Fallujah in western Iraq in 2003, said in a telephone interview. "They're viewed as collaborators."

He fears the order would endanger American troops by making it harder to recruit local support in war zones, a belief echoed by several advocacy groups working on behalf of America's Iraqi employees.

While in Iraq, Vaught employed five local interpreters who initially earned $5 a week traveling with US troops, sometimes without weapons or armour. He helped two of the interpreters come to the United States as refugees with their families, putting them up initially in his home in Dallas, Texas.

Another two were executed by militia groups, he said.

The fifth was still mired in the refugee screening process, which can last months or years even after the initial interview. Vaught had expected to also welcome him into his home this year before he had seen a draft of Trump's order.

"This executive order is based on ignorance and fear," he said. "And you do not lead a country with ignorance and fear."

Iraqis stranded

In Baghdad, the Iraqi man waiting for a visa recalled US soldiers had laughed at his concerns, telling him the United States is too big a democracy to be changed on "the decision of one person like Trump," he said. But he now wonders if the soldiers were right.

In 2013, a USAID official encouraged his family to apply as refugees under the Direct Access programme. He checked in every week or so, but is still awaiting word on an appointment at the US consulate for the necessary interview.

The same year he filed his application, he was shot in the head while driving to work, hospitalising him for a month and leaving him deaf in one ear. He connected that to the threats that had often flashed as text messages on his mobile phone, sent by militants angered by his wife's work for USAID.

Others in Iraq remained hopeful they would eventually get out.

An Iraqi man who worked for a US defence contractor and later alongside US troops as a mid-ranking Iraqi army officer recalled his excitement at getting the phone call a few weeks ago telling him that his family had an interview appointment at the US consulate after two years and four applications.

He was hopeful it would still take place in mid-February, believing that American officials would be concerned about the threats to his family. He was unaware that the US Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday temporarily halted trips by staff to interview applicants.

"I believe this is politics, things you hear on the news," he was quoted by Reuters as saying on condition of anonymity. "I don't think they would prevent Iraqis coming to America."

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