EXCLUSIVE US suspects 4,000 cases of fraud in Iraqi refugee program – documents

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WASHINGTON, June 18 (Reuters) – US authorities leading a massive fraud investigation suspect some 4,000 Iraqis of having filed fraudulent refugee resettlement applications in the United States, and are reviewing cases involving more than 104,000 others, according to State Department reports. reviewed by Reuters.

More than 500 Iraqis already admitted as refugees have been implicated in the alleged fraud and could be deported or stripped of their US citizenship, according to a document sent to members of Congress. He said there was “to date no indication that any of those 500 or more people have any links to terrorism.”

The investigation – one of the largest in recent history into refugee program fraud – fuels the reservations of some members of Joe Biden’s administration as they debate whether to create a similar program to help Afghan refugees as US troops withdraw after 20 years of war, US officials have told Reuters.

Reports show the investigation is larger and more serious than revealed by US officials since the January announcement of a 90-day freeze on Iraq’s “Direct Access” program for refugees. The suspension, which in April was extended indefinitely by the State Department, follows the unveiling of an indictment accusing three foreign nationals of fraud, theft of records and money laundering.

A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the scope of the investigation and the government’s internal deliberations, but said the fraud scheme did not affect the security screening of refugees.

“The discovery, investigation and prosecution of the individuals involved in the project demonstrated the US government’s commitment to ensuring the integrity of the program while respecting our humanitarian tradition,” the spokesperson said. “Those who seek to use America’s bounty to welcome the most vulnerable will be held accountable.”

The spokesperson did not give a timeline for the investigation, but said the agency would work “as quickly and thoroughly as possible” to complete the review and make the necessary security changes.

Sponsored by the late Senator Edward Kennedy, the “Direct Access” program was authorized by Congress four years after the start of the US occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2011 and the sectarian bloodshed it sparked. . The program aimed to expedite the resettlement in the United States of Iraqis at risk while working for the United States government.

Under pressure from lawmakers from both parties and advocacy groups, the Biden administration is considering a similar agenda for Afghans facing retaliation from the Taliban, according to a State Department official, congressional aide and lawmaker.

But there are “many reservations” about speeding up the resettlement of Afghans as refugees in the United States, the State Department official said, citing problems with the Iraqi program.

The official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, spoke of the challenges of checking work history and other basic information “in volatile environments.”

Representative Jason Crow, a former Army Ranger who founded a bipartisan group urging Biden to evacuate Afghans at risk, said State Department officials told him problems with the Iraqi program “have makes people think “about creating a program for Afghans.

“MAIN LIST” OF SUSPECTS

The suspension of the Iraqi program has frozen the processing of more than 40,000 applications covering more than 104,000 people – 95% of them in Iraq – and all are being reassessed, according to a State Department report reviewed by Reuters.

Authorities have drawn up a “master list” of “companies and suspected fraud cases identified by the investigation,” he said, adding that it includes more than 4,000 people, none of whom have been authorized. to travel to the United States.

State Department reports, the unsealed indictment and court documents do not categorically state the purpose of the alleged project.

But the affidavit of a State Department investigator suggested that applicants were paying for stolen records that helped them pass the selection process and consular interviews and “potentially gain admission to the United States … while that would not have happened otherwise ”.

The indictment released in January accused the suspects of stealing the digital files of more than 1,900 Iraqis, including highly confidential information such as employment history, military service, accounts of persecution, results of security checks and proposed questions for US consular interviews.

“Resettlement is a very rare and valuable commodity that saves lives,” said Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, a refugee resettlement agency. “People … are going to do whatever they can to access it.”

The program had shortened the process for Iraqi groups of “special humanitarian concern” to obtain resettlement of American refugees, removing the requirement that they first obtain referrals from the UN refugee agency.

Eligible applicants include Iraqis inside or outside Iraq at risk because they worked for the US government, as well as some family members. Iraqis who have worked for US-based media and humanitarian groups or organizations that have received grants or contracts from the US government may also apply.

More than 47,570 Iraqis have been resettled in the United States through the program, according to a State Department document.

Admissions have slowed to a trickle under former Republican President Donald Trump, who set the number of refugee admissions for this year at a record 15,000 before stepping down.

The alleged fraud took place from February 2016 to at least April 2019, according to the indictment. The investigation began in February 2019, according to a State Department document.

James Miervaldis of No One Left Behind, a nonprofit that helps Iraqis and Afghans affiliated with the United States immigrate to the United States, said it is not known how many people were killed, but that ‘they number in the hundreds. Most of the threats came from the remnants of the Islamic State and Iranian-backed Shia Muslim militias, he said.

“There are still a lot of Iraqis asking us for help,” Miervaldis said.

(This story is passed on to correct the scrambled signature)

Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Mary Milliken and Daniel Wallis

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.



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