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Trafficking of Iraqi Women Rampant Despite U.S. Commitment To End It

Unable to support themselves or their households, thousands of Iraqi women have been preyed on by sex traffickers.

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The United States should have provided a means of escape from this hopeless situation long ago -- by classifying Iraqi trafficking victims as a "priority-two" (P-2) refugee resettlement group, thereby expediting their resettlement process. This is the best way to create a fast track out of the horrific conditions these women face.

The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2008 gave the Secretary of State the authority to designate "vulnerable populations" of Iraqis as P-2 refugees. P-2 refugees apply directly to the US Refugee Admissions Program, skipping the typical bureaucratic hurdles of first applying to UNHCR to determine their refugee status and then being assigned to a resettlement country. P-2 status refugees must show they are part of a designated vulnerable group, but once they have done so, they are granted resettlement status. The United States has used priority status in the past to help refugee groups whose dislocation began after American military operations. The clearest example was America opening its borders to "Amerasians" -- children of American soldiers who remained in Southeast Asian after the Vietnam War. Congress has authorized the State Department to take similar action for Iraqi refugees, yet the State Department has created no new Iraqi P-2 groups since the legislation passed in 2008 and designated "Iraqis who worked for the US government, contractors, or US-based NGOs or media organizations, and their family members" and "persecuted religious or minority groups with close family members in the United States" as P-2 categories. This inaction stands in sharp contrast not only to the severe needs of Iraqi trafficking victims, but also to the responsibility America bears for their situation.

Beyond solidifying its own commitment to assisting Iraqi trafficking victims, the United States must encourage the UNHCR to focus on trafficking victims in Jordan and Syria. Our work with the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project has shown us that UNHCR is currently ill-equipped to provide trafficking victims urgent resettlement in life-threatening situations. In Syria, where trafficking is a particularly severe problem, refugees can expect meager monetary aid and a two-year wait before being resettled. Worse still, self-identifying as a trafficking victim only makes the wait longer by adding steps to the resettlement process. For victims seeking protection from UNHCR, this delay means further sexual exploitation, if not a lost chance at resettlement. The United States, which provides UNHCR with roughly one third of its funding and resettles more refugees than any other nation, has the clout to lean on UNHCR to streamline the resettlement process for trafficking victims in Syria and Jordan.

The United States is now preparing the withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq. However, the Iraqi women and girls trapped in sexual slavery will remain long after the last American soldier leaves unless we are willing to accept our responsibility to alleviate this problem. When Secretary of State Clinton announced that the TiP Report would now judge the United States "based on the same standards to which we hold other countries," she added that "this human rights abuse is universal and no one should claim immunity from its reach or from the responsibility to confront it." We cannot abdicate our responsibility towards these women, and must provide a safe and rapid means for their resettlement. Furthermore, America must ensure that UNHCR addresses the inefficiencies that make resettlement so difficult for these women. It is not enough to watch passively as these women struggle with a broken refugee resettlement process. We have an obligation to mend that system -- to remove the shackles holding these women down.

Sebastian Swett is a student at Yale Law School. He works with the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, part of the Urban Justice Center.

Cameron Webster is an undergraduate at Yale studying Political Science and aiming to practice immigration and refugee law after graduation. She works with the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, part of the Urban Justice Center.

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