I don’t speak Arabic, but no translator was necessary when I asked displaced Iraqis whether they thought it was safe to return home. Each time, the question was met with shaking heads signaling an emphatic “no.”
|One of my colleagues who has over a decade of experience responding to humanitarian crises said these were among the worst conditions he’d ever seen.|
On a recent trip to Iraq and neighboring countries where Iraqis have fled waves of violence since the U.S. invasion in 2003, my colleagues from the International Rescue Committee and I were struck by how little had changed in the last few years for those forced to flee for their lives.
The threats continue, and the specter of violence looms constant in Iraqi cities where the religious makeup of neighborhoods has dramatically shifted since sectarian violence was unleashed.
Many Iraqis are coming to the bitter realization that they may never be able to return to the places they called home before the war. One woman turned my question back on me. “Who wouldn’t want to go to their home, the place where they lived with their family? We just can’t.”
Making matters even worse are the deplorable conditions in Baghdad squatter camps where the poorest Iraqis have sought refuge. People live next to open sewer pits, and families sleep in makeshift shelters without access to the most basic of services, like clean water.
One of my colleagues who has over a decade of experience responding to humanitarian crises said these were among the worst conditions he’d ever seen.
Iraqis who had enough resources to get out of Iraq have not fared much better. Many of them live in a state of limbo — unable to start a new life in their neighboring host country and unable to go back to Iraq. While they do have access to basic services, many can’t find or are forbidden by law from pursuing meaningful employment, a situation that pushes them closer to the abyss of poverty as their savings dwindle.
|As attention wanes and budget pressures mount in Washington, it’s tempting to reduce support, but this could have disastrous consequences for Iraqi refugees.|
They have become part of the region’s urban poor in cities like Beirut, Damascus and Amman, scraping by day to day and facing exploitation and abuse. Adding to the misery, the trauma and stress has caused violence inside Iraqi households to surge, with women bearing the brunt.
These are the images I carry in my mind as the eighth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq passes. It’s particularly alarming since this year the United States is set to withdraw the last of its remaining troops.
As the countdown begins, Americans have to ask themselves what will become of the people who have had their lives shattered by this conflict? And moreover, does the United States want to leave behind a legacy of displacement that will undermine the future of Iraq and the broader region?
The United States must work with a renewed sense of urgency to strengthen the ability of Iraq’s new government to assist the 1.5 million people who remain displaced. While the international community would normally share the burden of responding to this crisis, new partners in addressing it will not be forthcoming, as it is largely seen as a problem for the United States to resolve given its unique role in the conflict.
A scaled-back military involvement in Iraq should allow the United States to continue to provide support while investing a fraction of what it has in recent years.
For its part, Iraq must implement policies and deliver services to enable its displaced people to get back on their feet and provide for themselves. They bear the ultimate responsibility for the well-being of their citizens and must prioritize the use of their own resources to address the situation of vulnerable and displaced Iraqis. Outside assistance can be targeted explicitly to areas where they lack capacity.
|Many Iraqis are coming to the bitter realization that they may never be able to return to the places they called home before the war.|
The United States must also continue to work with governments in the region to help them create the space for Iraqis to live decent lives while they wait to return home or be resettled to a third country. As attention wanes and budget pressures mount in Washington, it’s tempting to reduce support, but this could have disastrous consequences for Iraqi refugees.
Finally, other countries — especially those in Europe — should open their doors to Iraqi refugees whose only option is resettlement in a third country. The United States has an aggressive admissions program for uprooted Iraqis, but it alone cannot resettle them all. There is an enormous backlog of people who cannot go back to Iraq awaiting this opportunity.
The political will must be found to prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable Iraqis before U.S. forces depart and the world turns its attention away from Iraq. Otherwise, the United States will leave behind a legacy of broken lives, with adverse consequences for the region and the world.