US suspends refugee scheme for Iraqis after scam uncovered

Three people charged with stealing information to help applicants pass review process

International travelers leave the Customs and Immigration area of Dulles International Airport (IAD) June 29, 2017, outside Washington, DC, in Dulles, Virginia.
The US began implementing a ban on travelers from six mostly Muslim countries, amid fresh controversy about who is exempt: those with "close family relationships" can get visas, but grandparents and grandchildren don't count. / AFP PHOTO / PAUL J. RICHARDS
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The US has suspended the processing of applications from Iraqis seeking refugee status, after uncovering a scheme to help applicants pass the review process.

The Justice Department has charged three people with stealing confidential data for about 1,500 Iraqis seeking refuge in the US and helping to coach them through the interview process, according to an indictment unsealed on Friday.

From 2016 to 2019, two of the defendants, citizens of Jordan and Russia who are former employees at the US Customs and Immigration Service, accessed applicants’ information and sent it to an Iraqi citizen, the indictment said. The data contained questions interviewers might ask the applicants, as well as assessments of their cases and other information.

The indictment and a Justice Department statement did not say how many people, if any, successfully got refugee status in the US because of any data breach.

The indictment prompted the State Department to impose a 90-day halt on the Direct Access Programme for US-Affiliated Iraqis, which the applicants were using for refugee status.

The programme, created in 2008, allowed Iraqis who had worked for American government, military and media organisations during and after the Iraq war, to apply directly to the US for refugee status, rather than having to go through the UN.

“The US is holding individuals accountable for using the refugee programme for personal gain,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a tweet.

“A 90-day pause on the programme for US-affiliated Iraqis will address vulnerabilities. Our top priority is the safety and security of the American people.”

A separate statement from Acting Secretary of State Daniel Smith said the broader US refugee programme was not affected.

Of the 90-day suspension Mr Smith said: “We recognise the importance of assisting those who legitimately put their lives at risk to provide critical support to the United States in Iraq and we do not take the decision to suspend this programme lightly.”

The State Department move comes days after President Joe Biden repealed a ban on entry for travellers from several Muslim-majority countries that was imposed by his predecessor, Donald Trump.