The United States has nearly halted the processing of visas for Iraqi refugees in Syria, leaving thousands of people who fled a war in their homeland marooned in a country in the grip of an increasingly violent insurrection, with little hope of leaving anytime soon.

The U.S. government has indefinitely postponed sending officials from the Department of Homeland Security to Damascus, the Syrian capital, to conduct required interviews with refugees, judging the security situation there too volatile even though the Syrian government has made entry visas available. Others, including Canada, the International Organisation for Migration and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, have continued to administer cases in Syria.

The U.S. has also declined to take up makeshift measures suggested by refugee advocates, including conducting the interviews by videoconference. An estimated 10,000 Iraqis in Syria are awaiting interviews.

“They are caught between a rock and no place,” said Becca Heller of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project in New York, who added, “A simple solution to that would be to agree to conduct interviews by videoconference.”

The U.S. declined to comment on the situation, but it has argued that the law requires the interviews to be conducted in person, a judgment that means refugees in Syria, where most Iraqis are clustered in the suburbs of Damascus, can only wait as the unrest escalates and countries in the region like Israel worry about a new refugee crisis if Syria's government collapses or if a civil war erupts, two events that experts believe are increasingly likely.

The unrest in Syria, home to more Iraqi refugees than any other country, has added another layer of delay to the visa process, which had already slowed substantially because of new security checks put in place last year after two Iraqis were arrested in Kentucky on charges of aiding the insurgency in Iraq. Homeland Security officials visited Syria between January and March last year but have not been back because of the security situation.

“I think we should really be worried about another refugee crisis,” said Yasser Imad, an Iraqi who was recently allowed entry to the U.S. after living in Syria for almost four years. Interviewed recently by this reporter at a coffee shop in New York, Imad said Iraqis in Syria were increasingly anxious. Some have joined pro-government rallies to avoid deportation, he said. Few want to go back to Iraq.

Many Iraqis who escaped to Syria at the height of the sectarian violence have chosen to stay there even as the rebellion against President Bashar Assad's government turns more violent. But the stakes are higher now in the wake of the U.S. troop departure from Iraq. — New York Times News Service

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