America’s Responsibility to Iraqi Refugees

Is the United States doing enough to provide sanctuary for those fleeing persecution and violence in Iraq?

October 31, 2007

Is the United States doing enough to provide sanctuary for those fleeing persecution and violence in Iraq?

This crisis is continuing to worsen — as an estimated 60,000 people reportedly flee violence and persecution in Iraq each month.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2,000 people were fleeing to Syria each day before Syria recently joined Jordan in closing its border to the influx.


The impact of the displacement crisis has been especially difficult on Syria and Jordan. Syria has taken in more than 1.2 million Iraqi refugees, equal to 10% of Syria’s own population.

Jordan is hosting up to 750,000 Iraqi refugees, who now make up 24% of Jordan’s population. Of course, adjusted for population size, that is the equivalent of 75 million people in the United States. And don’t forget that Jordan already has many Palestinians living within its borders.

Syria has opened its educational and health systems to Iraqi refugees, and the Government of Jordan is allowing Iraqi school children to enroll in Jordanian schools.


Neither country has the resources to meet the needs of all the Iraqi refugees that they are hosting. Both countries need international help.

With a combined displaced population of over four million people, this represents one of the largest and fastest-growing humanitarian crises of our time. These refugees are targets of persecution due to their political opinions, ethnicities, religious affiliations and professions, to name just a few factors.


Many of the Iraqi refugees fear persecution because they worked closely with and helped Americans — the U.S. military, U.S. contractors, humanitarian organizations and journalists.

In Jordan, the majority of refugees are living in the country illegally. They have overstayed their visas — and, while some have resources, many have run through their savings. Most live in impoverished East Amman — or the cities of Zarqa and Irbid.

It’s not unusual to find a family of six living in one room. The father and any adult sons may fear to leave the apartment and will not have jobs. They may rely on the women and children to go to the market, run errands — and make a little money.


Their greatest worry may be the health and education of their children.

Despite Jordan’s generous official policy of admitting all refugee children to school this year, the local principal may in fact have turned the children away because of school overcrowding.


When someone falls ill, the family will not have money for private physicians and have no access to healthcare.

Even if their present circumstances are very difficult, going back to Iraq is not an option. That’s where they experienced killings, kidnappings and extortion — or saw that happen to someone close to them. At the same time, they must know that their chances of being resettled in a third country are slim.

The United States did not intend for this crisis to happen, but it has. And the United States should play a central role in addressing it. Other countries will base their own responses on ours.


On February 5, 2007, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice established a senior-level State Department task force on Iraqi refugees and displaced people. Various State Department announcements indicated that the number of Iraqis resettled in the United States by the end of September 2007 would be either (a) unlimited, (b) 25,000 or (c) 7,000 Iraqi refugees.

Despite these pledges, the United States resettled only 1,608 Iraqi refugees by September 30th. (Sweden, by comparison, took in 12,259 Iraqi asylum-seekers during the same period.) The U.S. State Department now plans to bring 12,000 Iraqis to the United States in fiscal year 2008.


Given the extent of the problem and the number of people who are suffering and in need of basic protection, however, this number of 12,000 people is clearly inadequate. It is an ambitious number only if a “business as usual” approach is taken, using current procedures for the U.S. refugee program.

What is needed instead, however, is to adopt this crisis as a top U.S. government priority. That means to provide robust aid to help other countries host refugees, to do more inside Iraq for the displaced — and to scale up operations in order to bring many more Iraqis to the United States.

We need something today on the order of what Presidents Ford and Carter did back in the late 1970s/early 1980s — the post-Vietnam War era — when they authorized and ensured the admission of hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians per year to the United States.


Back then, 131,000 people were resettled between May and December 1975 alone, and the United States has taken in more than 900,000 Vietnamese refugees overall.

Similarly, the United States welcomed more than 600,000 Russian Jews during the Cold War — and took in more than 150,000 Bosnian refugees during the Bosnian conflict.


Recognizing that resettlement in another country will be a solution for only a minority of the cases, there is a pressing need to do more than admit more refugees and asylum seekers in Europe and North America.

In particular, aid is needed for the countries hosting the refugees. Jordan and Egypt (and to a lesser extent Lebanon) already benefit from sizable U.S. government aid programs — but much of this is military aid, and more needs to be done to help these countries manage the impact on their economies.

While Jordan’s public schools were already overcrowded and dilapidated before the refugees arrived and rents might have increased anyway, price hikes, rent increases and other economic problems are being blamed on the influx of Iraqis.


The Government of Jordan calculates it provides $1 billion in goods and services to the Iraqi refugees. Some fear that Jordan’s economy and society will become unstable. It is in our interest to provide help to fix Jordan’s public schools, improve housing and upgrade health care.

Recent pieces of U.S. legislation — such as Senator Ted Kennedy’s Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act and Representative Earl Blumenauer’s Responsibility to Iraqi Refugees Act of 2007 — are critical in that they address the massive displacement of Iraqis since 2003 in a comprehensive way. These measures would ensure that the United States begins to meet its promise to protect Iraqi refugees.


A number of nongovernmental organizations, including my own, have recommended $1.4 billion in comprehensive assistance.

Admittedly, there is a sharp contrast to the Bush Administration’s requests to Congress to provide more assistance. The recent war funding package sent to Congress requested just $240 million to help the displaced Iraqis, on top of $35 million previously requested.

The $1.4 billion could be funded by Congress on an urgent basis in fall 2007/winter 2008 as part of a mid-year “supplemental” appropriations bill.


But even this significant package does not begin to approach what the United States has done in the past. President Bush should recognize and acknowledge this serious crisis and launch an ambitious program.

And it’s time for Americans to tell their President and Congress that the United States must honor its historic tradition of aiding and providing sanctuary for those fleeing persecution and violence. We must help these desperate and vulnerable Iraqis and the countries that are helping them.