Status of the Processing of the Camp Ashraf Residents
Chairman Rohrabacher and Ranking Member Carnahan, thank you for the opportunity today to testify before this Subcommittee. I welcome this occasion to report on the significant progress made in the Administration’s ongoing efforts to support a humane, peaceful, and durable solution for the residents of Camp Ashraf, as well as on the challenges that remain.
In early December 2011, when I last appeared before this Subcommittee to discuss the situation at Camp Ashraf, the potential for a humanitarian crisis appeared ominous. The Government of Iraq had announced its intention to close Camp Ashraf by December 31, and there were valid concerns, based on previous incidents, that this could result in bloodshed. At that time, the United States and the UN recognized the need to develop and support on an urgent basis a mechanism to achieve the safety and security of Ashraf’s residents. Members of this Committee appeared to share such concerns. It was under these circumstances that Secretary Clinton instructed me to work with Ambassador Jeffrey and the United Nations to avert a humanitarian catastrophe.
Given that context, I am relieved to report significant progress, while recognizing that the job is not yet done. On December 25, the Government of Iraq and the United Nations signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that provides the mechanism and path forward for the safe relocation of Ashraf’s residents out of Iraq. Secretary Clinton quickly and publicly announced our support for this MOU, and we were shortly joined in this support by key partners in the international community, especially the European Union. We called upon the Iraqi government to respect the terms of the MOU and upon the residents of Camp Ashraf to cooperate in its implementation. With the signature of the MOU, the Iraqi government lifted the December 31 deadline for Ashraf’s closure.
Under the terms of the MOU, the residents of Camp Ashraf have been provided a temporary transit facility – Camp Hurriya (formerly called Camp Liberty) adjacent to the Baghdad International Airport – to which to relocate under guarantees of security. The MOU also provided for regular, in-person human rights monitoring by the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), headed by the able and energetic Ambassador Martin Kobler, and the ability to participate in a Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process to be undertaken by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Additionally, through the MOU, the Iraqi Government made a commitment to the principle of non-refoulement. These were important steps forward by the Iraqi government.
Following conclusion of the MOU, the Iraqi Government worked with the UN and the residents of Camp Ashraf to begin the moves to Camp Hurriya. The first convoy to Hurriya occurred February 18, with nearly 400 people. Despite some complications and delays, it took place peacefully and was observed by U.S. officials from Embassy Baghdad in addition to UN monitors. A second and similar convoy of nearly 400 residents occurred on March 8, followed by a third convoy on March 19, a fourth on April 16, and the fifth and most recent convoy on May 5. Together, nearly 2000 residents of Ashraf have moved to Camp Hurriya, which is well over half the total.
After the fifth convoy, the Department of State publicly welcomed the progress to date, including the continued cooperation of the Iraqi Government and the residents of Camp Ashraf with UNAMI in implementation of the MOU. Our statement also noted the need to increase our focus on our ultimate objective: the safe relocation of the residents from Camp Hurriya out of Iraq, and we joined the UN’s call to member states to assist in this effort.
The process of relocating residents to Hurriya has had challenges. Each convoy, carrying approximately 400 Ashraf residents, their personal effects, and large quantities of cargo to Hurriya, has been a significant logistical undertaking. The Iraqi government has provided dozens of coach busses and cargo trucks and literally thousands of Iraqi security forces to provide for the convoy’s security on the road. Accompanying each convoy are UN human rights monitors, who also observe the screening of residents and property as each convoy loads from Camp Ashraf and provide useful, neutral reports following each convoy movement. The preparation of each convoy is lengthy and disagreements, sometimes heated, have occurred between the Iraqi authorities and the residents about cargo, screening procedures and other issues. The U.S. Embassy and Department of State of followed the progress of each convoy closely, often in real time, in support of the UN; we are well aware of the difficulties involved. Given the history of Camp Ashraf, the emotions involved, and the fact that many of those at Camp Ashraf have resided there for years, this should not surprise us. Indeed, the fact of continued progress is more remarkable than the difficulties. Patience and compromise have been required, and will still be required, as the last convoys needed to close Camp Ashraf are organized.
Living conditions at Camp Hurriya have also had their challenges. Camp Hurriya, when under U.S. control, was part of the largest coalition base in Iraq, housing thousands of American and coalition forces during military operations in Iraq. The containerized housing units (CHUs), which the former Ashraf residents now occupy, previously housed our service personnel. Hurriya also includes among its living spaces a large dining facility, fitness facility, a mosque, and recreational space for the residents. The UN studied the infrastructure before the first convoy and judged that the facility met or exceeded international humanitarian standards for such encampments to support the relocation of all Ashraf residents.
Nevertheless, some legitimate concerns were raised about conditions at Hurriya. There were early issues with water, sewage and electric power, though many of these have been resolved. There were early concerns about the location and size of Iraqi police units at Camp Hurriya, though here, too, a satisfactory resolution was worked out. Both Camps Ashraf and Hurriya have internet connectivity to the world.
Still, some issues remain. For example, greater attention needs to be paid to the repair of air conditioning units by the Government of Iraq, and other basic welfare needs, such as accommodations for the disabled, ought to be addressed. With the onset of hot weather, requirements of electric power and water deliveries will increase, and the number of needed utility vehicles for provision of water and removal of sewage therefore will grow. The Iraqi government needs to work with the UN to address ongoing humanitarian concerns as the population at Camp Hurriya grows amid hot weather. The residents meanwhile need to engage with the Iraqi government, the UN, and others on these serious issues in a focused manner.
The UNAMI monitors, who visit Hurriya daily, and U.S. Embassy officers, who also visit frequently, have been invaluable in working out problems and keeping us informed about the details of issues that develop. UNAMI, with active U.S. support, is working at high-levels with the Iraqi government to ensure the welfare of the residents is not compromised and to resolve issues that arise. Continued efforts will be needed, especially now that the hot season has arrived.
It is important that the final convoys from Ashraf take place and that Camp Ashraf be closed. Our efforts do not end, however, with Camp Ashraf’s closure. Indeed, we must not lose sight of our purpose: the relocation of Camp Ashraf residents out of Iraq. The way for residents out of Iraq lies through the UNHCR process. With start-up issues largely resolved, the UNHCR has intensified its efforts and increased its resources to interview and review residents for refugee status eligibility, the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process.
The next great task in this effort requires continued participation of the residents in the UNHCR process, and the diplomatic work of relocating those residents out of Iraq. For our part, the United States has informed the UNHCR and our international partners that we will receive UNHCR’s referrals of some individuals.
These referrals will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, consistent with applicable U.S. law. Other governments have stated their intention to take similar actions, and some have begun the process of reviewing residents.
Let me be clear: it will be critical for the United States to demonstrate leadership in this area. Our doing so will be essential to finding a solution. We hope to have the support of the Congress and all who in the past have expressed concern for the welfare of the residents of Camp Ashraf. We will also need the continued cooperation of the remaining Ashraf residents to move swiftly to relocate to Hurriya, and the cooperation of the residents of Camp Hurriya with the UNHCR.
The next stage of the process will be challenging. Some in Camp Hurriya may choose to return voluntarily to Iran. Others may find that they have credentials and connections to European or other nations and can resettle there. Still others will require resettlement as refugees or other permission to reside in third countries through the UNHCR’s good offices. Some of our European partners have already indicated that they will interview residents to determine eligibility for resettlement within their respective countries. In all these cases, the United States will encourage prompt and secure relocation of the residents of Hurriya and, again, we must be prepared to do our part, hopefully with support of Congress.
I want to commend the extraordinary work being done by the UNAMI and UNHCR missions in Iraq, and the intense engagement of U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey and his dedicated team. Their diligence, creativity, and commitment have been essential to the progress made thus far. They routinely mediate disputes – from the mundane to the more serious – and without their leadership at all levels this process would be immensely more difficult, and human lives would be in greater jeopardy.
Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member, this is in the nature of an interim report. Much has been achieved since last December’s hearing. Much remains to be done. This is a complex and dynamic issue, and it consumes an enormous amount of resources, for UNAMI, for UNHCR, and for the UN writ large; and the U.S. is devoting attention commensurate with the need.
Our paramount interest in this situation is humanitarian. We have much still to do, and the potential for serious trouble remains. The difficult history of the MEK in Iraq is a matter of record. But at last we are on a road to resolve this problem through the relocation of Ashraf residents out of Iraq.
Thank you for this opportunity and I welcome your questions.