The Bush administration conceded Monday it may not meet its goal to admit 12,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of September, although officials stressed that remained their target.
With the monthly admissions rate hovering in the low hundreds for the past four months despite pledges to improve refugee processing, officials said they expected a boost in numbers toward the end of spring and hoped for a significant surge in the summer.
While January admissions improved slightly over December, to 375 from 245, the United States must still accept 10,568 Iraqi refugees in the next eight months if it is to reach 12,000 - the number the administration has pledged to resettle in the current budget year, which began in October 2007 and runs until Sept. 30.
"This is a tall order, but it remains attainable," said James Foley, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's point man on Iraqis refugees. Still, he said: "We're not guaranteeing that we're going to reach 12,000. There is no way to guarantee that result."
The small jump in January ended three straight months of declines in Iraqi refugee admissions, which slid from 450 in October to 362 in November and 245 in December. It brings the number admitted thus far in fiscal 2008 to 1,432, which is nearing the total of 1,608 for the previous fiscal year.
Foley and Lori Scialabba, his counterpart at the Homeland Security Department, said the numbers would not rise to more than 1,000 per month for another few months. A monthly average of 1,321 is now needed to reach the 12,000 mark by the deadline.
"While we will not cross the 1,000 arrivals per month threshold until sometime in the spring, we are confident that we will have substantial numbers of arrivals indeed in the 4th quarter of the fiscal year, and thus we continue to aim for 12,000 by the end of September," Foley said.
The administration has come under heavy criticism from advocacy groups and lawmakers for its poor performance on admitting Iraqi refugees who have fled violence since the 2003 U.S. invasion. Many critics say, and Bush aides have acknowledged, that the administration has a moral obligation to Iraqi refugees.
"A year ago, the United States made a pledge to address the Iraqi refugee crisis, and we have failed to keep that promise," said Kristele Younes of Refugees International. "In the president's last year in office, a real effort should be made to resettle the most vulnerable Iraqi refugees and provide assistance for those still in the region."
Some 2.5 million Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries, mainly Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, and about 17,000 of those have been referred to the United States for resettlement by the United Nations.
Despite improved cooperation between the departments of State and Homeland Security in refugee processing, admissions have lagged in part because of restrictions placed on interviewers, particularly in Syria, and the inability to process refugees inside Iraq itself.
New legislation signed by President George W. Bush last week allows in-country processing, and about 100 Iraqi employees of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and their families are expected to be interviewed by DHS agents this month, Scialabba said.
It was unclear Monday when processing might begin for Iraqi employees of contractors, aid agencies and other groups who are at particular risk.