New York, February 6, 2008—President Bush has signed PEN-supported legislation that requires the United States to expand programs to resettle Iraqi refugees in the U.S., removing some of the major barriers that have left thousands of Iraqi writers, journalists, and translators stranded and vulnerable in Iraq and neighboring countries. PEN has called the Iraqi refugee provision “the least we can do” for Iraqis who have been targeted for working with U.S. organizations and media.

Senators Edward Kennedy, Gordon Smith, Carl Levin, and Sam Brownback sponsored the bipartisan provision, which was enacted as part of the 2008 Department of Defense Authorization Act. Under the law, the U.S. is now required to expedite refugee processing in Syria and Jordan and for the first time to begin screening and processing refugees inside Iraq. The Iraqi refugee provision expands a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Iraqis who have been targeted because they worked with or for the United States government or military, and it gives Iraqis who worked with U.S. contractors, NGOs, and media organization direct access to the U.S. resettlement program rather than requiring that they first register and be processed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Significant new funds are also authorized under the Act to increase humanitarian assistance for Iraqi refugees and ease the strain the flood of Iraqi refugees has placed on neighboring countries.

PEN American Center, which has been working to resettle Iraqi writers, journalists, and translators in the U.S. since 2005, was one of the first organizations to endorse the Kennedy-Smith legislation. Writing to Senator Kennedy last June, PEN enumerated the many obstacles it was encountering in its efforts to rescue endangered Iraqi colleagues, noting that “a handful…have found safe havens in northern Europe. But to date, despite the extreme sacrifices so many Iraqis made to help Americans navigate the political and social realities of their country and encourage their fellow citizens to reject violence and extremism . . . we have not yet successfully assisted a single one of our colleagues in reaching the United States.”

Since then, working closely with the U.S. State Department, PEN has been able to help a small group of Iraqi colleagues who had managed to flee to Syria with their families to reach the U.S., and it has submitted a new list of threatened writers and journalists for resettlement. The legislation that was enacted last week should significantly accelerate this process. It will also mean that PEN can now assist writers and journalists who have been unable to flee Iraq in pressing resettlement claims without having to cross what are increasingly restrictive international borders.

“We are delighted that Congress and the Administration have taken this important step to broaden and intensify refugee processing, and we are extremely grateful to Senators Kennedy and Smith for their leadership on this issue,” said Larry Siems, Director of Freedom to Write and International Programs at PEN American Center. “We urge the administration to move quickly to implement the law’s new programs and provisions, and we look forward to helping our endangered Iraqi colleagues gain access to this long-overdue assistance.”

Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660 ext. 105