New York, NY, March 29, 2007In testimony presented to Congress this week, journalist and PEN Trustee George Packer urged the U.S. government to clarify and streamline the process for resettling Iraqis targeted for death for perceived “collaboration” with American and western organizations, among them more than a dozen writers and translators PEN is currently working to rescue from hiding in Syria and Iraq.

Noting that the war in Iraq has produced one of the world’s gravest refugee crises, with almost four million Iraqis displaced internally and in neighboring countries, Packer testified in particular about the plight of Iraqs “who welcomed the overthrow of the Saddam regime andshared our vision for Iraq’s future to the extent they were willing to risk their lives for it every day” and “who now feel abandoned.”

“In the past few months, under rising congressional and media pressure,there has been some action,” Packer told the House Foreign AffairsCommittees Sub-Committee on Middle East and South Asia. “A State Department task force has been formed, with talk of admitting seven thousand Iraqis after they are processed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. But until now, there is still no clear, expeditious, and safe route to the U.S. available to these most vulnerable Iraqis. And for many of them, time is running out.”

Packer’s statement drew on extensive interviews he conducted in Iraq, Jordan, and Syria for a recent New Yorker article and on PEN’s experiences in responding to pleas for help from threatened Iraqi writers and translators, and it recounted the difficulties PEN has encountered in its efforts to bring these writers and translators to safety:

“PEN American Center has been working to resettle Iraqi writers andtranslators targeted for death since September 2005, when in received adesperate appeal for help from a group of seven translators from theMosul area. All of them had received clear, explicit death threats, and most had either survived lethal attacks themselves or had close familymember killed in their place. Within a year, two from that originalgroup had been assassinated. Since then, as its case list has grown, PEN has managed to find refuge for seven writers and translators and their families in Europe, mostly in Norway.

“It has also been pursuing the much more difficult goal of helping some of those on its list reach the U.S. For one group that has been living in hiding in Syria, there has been some progress: last month five were screened by the office of the UNHCR in Damascus and have been referred to the United States for possible resettlement. Now they are waiting for the opportunity to interview with U.S. officials. While they wait,like all Iraqis in Syria they are barred from holding work permits, and several have exhausted their limited financial means. So far, they have received no information on when U.S. interviewers will be in Damascus.

“PEN is also working on the cases of several men and women who are essentially trapped inside Iraq, unable to flee the country for lack of resources or for fear they will be killed if they attempt to move. The list includes former translators for Coalition forces and media outlets, two of whom were wounded in attacks, and a teacher and writer targeted for writing articles denouncing terrorism in Iraq. With no avenue available for those still in Iraq to apply for refugee status or seek resettlement, they are waiting, too, for any indication that a system exists where they can present and plead their cases.”

Packer closed by urging Congress to press the administration to createa system for reviewing asylum requests inside Iraq and to expeditereviews and processing of refugees in neighboring countries. “It is a matter of national honor,” he insisted. “If we do less, history will find moral shame in all of us.”

Related articles

  • Lost After Translation: Voices from Iraq

  • November 20, 2006 | Waddah Ali | Fear of Freedom

  • November 20, 2006 | Omar Ghanim Fathi | Republic of Dreams

  • November 20, 2006 | Basim Mardan | Lost After Translation

Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660, ext. 105, lsiems@pen.org