Responding To Iraq’s Refugee Crisis

Our guest blogger is Natalie Ondiak, a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

iraq_refugees.jpgThe humanitarian situation for Iraqis is dire. Since 2003, about 5 million Iraqis have been displaced: more than 2 million of these Iraqis are refugees, the majority of whom are in the region and 2.8 million are internally displaced persons. This number of displaced Iraqis represents nearly one-fifth of the entire Iraqi population. This past weekend, 13,000 Iraqis Christians in Mosul fled their homes after several weeks of violence and intimidation and were forced to seek sanctuary in neighboring areas and, in some cases, Syria.

On September 30th, the State Department announced that 13, 823 Iraqi refugees had been resettled in the US in fiscal year 2008, exceeding their 12,000 person goal. While this suggests a concerted effort by policy makers to take action to help Iraqis, the 13,823 number is not sufficient. The US has been shirking its responsibility in the face of a displacement crisis in Iraq. The number of Iraqi refugees offered US resettlement has been woefully low. Between March 2003 and 2007, the US resettled fewer than 8000 Iraqi refugees. The State Department missed its resettlement figure targets in both 2006 and 2007. In 2007, the modest Iraqi resettlement target was 5000 people, but the US resettled only 1,608 Iraqis.

The February 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra marked the beginning of an increase in sectarian violence. As the conflict has devolved into a civil war, displacement has rapidly increased. In addition to violence and insecurity, the economic situation in Iraq has continued to deteriorate. Indeed, standards of living are below what they were prior to the war and unemployment is rampant.

The majority of displaced Iraqis since 2003 have ended up in nearby countries in the region. Syria and Jordan host the most Iraq refugees — about 1.5 million between them. However, many Middle Eastern countries are also hosting large numbers of Iraqis:

Syria: 1,200,000-1,400,000
Jordan: 350,000 to 750,000
Lebanon: 40,000
Egypt: 100,000
Iran: 54,000
Gulf States: 200,000
Turkey: 10,000
TOTAL: 2.3- 2.5 million

Countries in the region — particularly Syria and Jordan — have become less generous and more restrictive. Both Syria and Jordan have played host to earlier waves of refugees from the region — most notably the Palestinians — who have remained in these countries for decades. There is some fear by both countries that Iraqis will become the new Palestinians and in 2007 both countries effectively closed their borders. Iraqi refugees, while safer than they were in Iraq, do not fare particularly well in these countries. A major segment of the Iraqi population cannot find legal work in either country which is leading to a deterioration of talent within Iraq’s civil society and a stagnation of skills.

Both countries have explained their increasingly restrictive behavior based on two concerns. First is the argument that refugees are a drain on host government services. Both Syria and Jordan claim that the Iraqi refugee crisis is costing them $1 billion a year . Second, there is some concern that Iraqis will cause discord among other Arabs who resent their presence. Also, some fear exists that refugees may bring with them sectarian tendencies which may generate violence and discord.

Countries in the region have become host to large number of Iraqi refugees due to their proximity. However, some European countries have been extremely generous toward Iraqis. Sweden has been most generous in terms of allowing large numbers of Iraqis to apply for asylum and granting them protection. Since 2003, some 46,000 Iraqi refugees have sought asylum in Sweden, with 18,559 applying in 2007 alone. This number is greater than the rest of the EU combined. Recently, Sweden has become more restrictive and asylum is only granted in about 25% of cases (pdf).

One reason suggested for the slow pace of resettlement has to do with poor US-Syrian relations and the bureaucratic steps involved in refugee processing. Kirk Johnson, Executive Director of The List Project to resettle US-affiliated Iraqis appeared on 60 Minutes in May 2008 to discuss the inadequate US response to the Iraqi refugee crisis, particularly toward those Iraqis who have been targeted as a result of their affiliation with Americans. He said “the only answer I can posit for why this takes so long is because it looks bad for the United States,”:

Asked what looks bad for the U.S., Johnson says, “I think that there are people in the White House that think that if they only place left for the Iraqis who have stood up for democracy and who have helped America is America itself, then it looks as though the war isn’t going as well as they would like Americans to believe.”

Displacement is a byproduct of any war, but the US is clearly not doing enough to help Iraqis. While the latest resettlement figures are a step in the right direction, a specific subset of refugees, US affiliated Iraqis who made American work possible in Iraq deserve our immediate attention. These people include drivers and translators and Iraqis with essential insider knowledge about the country. Helping Iraqis who helped Americans is our moral and strategic responsibility and should be our first priority in addressing the humanitarian crisis. The US should also work to increase Iraqi resettlement targets for all Iraqis who seek US protection. This should be an immediate agenda item for the next president. Increasing our resettlement targets and accepting Iraqi refugees is the right thing to do.