Operation Safe Haven Iraq 2009

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

During Senator Clinton’s confirmation hearing on Wednesday, the issue of Iraqi refugees was raised in a question by Senator Cardin. Cardin mentioned that five million people have been displaced, many into other countries which “makes it extremely challenging to see a lasting solution in that region”. Senator Clinton’s response included longer-term goals:

One of the challenges of the Iraqi government and, insofar as we are involved, our government, in sort of balancing how we’re going to support the stability of the Iraqi government and help them deal with the repatriation and return, both externally and internally, of Iraqis is a big challenge to the Iraqi government that we’re conscious of.

Before repatriation and return are possible, however, other issues must be addressed. One of these is the question of how to deal with the 30,000 to 100,000 Iraqis who worked with Americans in Iraq and have been targeted as “collaborators” and “traitors” by extremists and militia for their U.S. affiliation. These Iraqis have worked as engineers, translators, office workers, drivers, construction workers for the U.S. government and other American organizations. Many have become refugees or internally displaced persons. and their lives and the lives of their families are in danger. These Iraqis urgently need and deserve America’s help. Yet bureaucratic red tape has until recently meant that refugee processing takes between 6 months and 2 years — far too long when people’s lives are at risk.


Under the leadership of Senator Kennedy, significant legislative steps have been taken to introduce a new visa specifically for U.S.-affiliated Iraqis. The goal of the Special Immigrant Visa program is to bring 5,000 Iraqis to the U.S. from FY 2008–2012, for a total 25,000 Iraqis (the 25,000 number does not include family members). The SIV program is also meant to streamline and expedite processing, which remains slow. In 2008, only 600 of the 5000 allotted slots were filled due to bureaucratic backlogs. While sufficient slots are allocated through SIVs and the refugee resettlement program, political will — and administration support — is needed to make sure that these Iraqis are able to find safety in the U.S.

This week, the Center for American Progress released a report entitled Operation Safe Haven Iraq 2009”which proposes an aggressive course of action on the refugee issue for the incoming Obama administration. The report argues that a humanitarian airlift of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis is the best course of action. Operation Safe Haven Iraq 2009 includes the following recommendations:

1. Appoint a White House coordinator for Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons who would oversee the airlift.2. Conduct an audit of current refugee and special immigrant visa efforts in the region and compile a list of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis3. Finalize in-country security background checks 4. Commence an airlift to a third location5. Implement third-country expedited processing for Iraqi refugees6. Facilitate relocation and placement of Iraqi refugees in the United States

This type of airlift has U.S. precedence — of 20,000 Kosovar Albanians in 1999, of 6,600 Iraqi Kurds in 1996, and of over 100,000 South Vietnamese in 1975. Additionally, airlifts are currently being undertaken by U.S. coalition partners in Iraq including Poland, Denmark and the U.K. to help resettle Iraqis who worked with them.

Protecting U.S.-affiliated Iraqis is America’s moral and strategic imperative in Iraq, and this issue should be a priority for the incoming Obama administration. It is also the best first step in addressing the broader problem of Iraqi displacement. Even as the U.S. begins to withdraw and Iraq begins to fade from the headlines, Iraq’s displacement crisis continues. U.S. policy must address this issue, with special attention paid to protecting those who helped the United States in Iraq.