US to resume Iraqi refugee programme after fraud investigation

Officials to restart processing applications for Direct Access scheme

Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington in 2021. AP
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The US said on Tuesday it had reopened a refugee programme for Iraqis, which was placed on hold for more than a year during an investigation into fraud.

Officials will resume processing applications that were suspended during the inquiry and accepting new petitions for resettlement as part of the Iraqi Direct Access refugee programme, the US State Department said.

More than 40,000 applications covering more than 104,000 people were frozen when the investigation was launched in January 2021.

US investigators suspected about 4,000 Iraqis of filing false applications for resettlement as refugees.

The State Department said it "identified and resolved" its concerns about the programme and would ensure that only "bona fide and qualified Iraqis" were considered for resettlement.

"The United States is committed to ensuring those who sacrificed their own safety for our collective interests have an opportunity to seek refuge in the United States," department spokesman Ned Price said.

"This includes Iraqis who have served alongside US service members."

The programme was suspended after an indictment was unsealed that accused three foreign nationals of fraud, records theft and money laundering.

The alleged fraud ran from February 2016 until at least April 2019, the indictment said, and the investigation began in February 2019, a State Department document said.

Sponsored by the late Senator Edward Kennedy, the "Direct Access" programme was authorised by Congress four years into the 2003-2011 US occupation of Iraq and the sectarian bloodletting it unleashed.

The programme aimed to hasten resettlement in the US of Iraqis endangered because they worked for the US government.

The programme shortened the process for Iraqi groups "of special humanitarian concern" to obtain US refugee resettlement, dropping a requirement that they first obtain referrals from the UN refugee agency.

"All refugees undergo the highest level of security screening and vetting, including extensive interviews and the vetting of biographic and biometric information," Mr Price said.

"Only after an applicant has cleared all security vetting can they be deemed eligible for admission to the United States."

Updated: March 02, 2022, 1:17 AM