Refugees: the missing Iraq benchmark

Anita Sharma Brian Katulis
7 September 2007

The debate in the United States over the status report on Iraq has already begun, even before the week beginning 10 September 2007 when General David Petraeus presents his findings to Congress and the White House. The ingredients of the debate include a grim national-intelligence estimate (NIE) released on 23 August 2007; a report from the US's government accountability office (GAO) on the failure of the Iraqi government to pass most of the "benchmarks" set for it, published on 4 September; and statements from several members of Congress returning from short visits to the troubled country.

Brian Katulis works on the national security team at the Center for American Progress. He lived and worked in the middle east for several years, including on projects in Egypt, Iraq, and the Palestinian territoriesConspicuously absent from these important discussions are the millions of Iraqis whose lives are in jeopardy because of the violence. Americans do not need to hear lectures from President Bush about the fall of Saigon or the rise of Pol Pot to imagine the consequences for people abandoned by the powers that came to save them, or purged because of their association with the previous regime or foreign power. Such a crisis exists in Iraq today: nearly one in six Iraqis - as many as 4.2 million people, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) - already pushed out of their homes, tens of thousands already killed, and scores of families singled out for retribution because of their association with the coalition.

The US troop surge has done little to stop Iraqis fleeing violence. Since the surge began in February 2007, the number of Iraqis displaced has doubled, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent Organisation and the International Organisation for Migration. One US official in Iraq recently estimated that Baghdad's population is now 75% composed of Shi'a, a marked change from the position when 65% was Sunni. The NIE noted that a decline in violence in Iraq's capital - which could in principle be presented as good news - is in part due to sectarian cleansing.

These facts contradict the assertion made in late July by US military officials that the escalation has decreased the number of displaced families across Iraq, especially in Baghdad. A humanitarian disaster is unfolding before our eyes, and the US military presence is unable to stop it.

The cost of delay

US military commanders, including General Petraeus himself, indicate that strains on the US military require a start to the withdrawal of ground troops from Iraq by spring 2008. While an escalation of Iraq's conflicts might ensue following the troop redeployment from Iraq, a Cambodia-style killing-field or Vietnam-style further mass exodus is far from inevitable. Until now the US response to this catastrophe has been insufficient at best. The state department announced it would provide an additional $100 million to assist with the Iraqi displacement crisis, but humanitarian groups such as Refugees International argue that the United States should triple this figure. Jordan, a country with 6 million people, says it is spending nearly $1 billion a year to help an estimated 750,000 Iraqis now in its country.

Anita Sharma works on the national security team at the Center for American Progress.

She previously worked on projects related to displaced Iraqis in Iraq and Jordan in 2003 with the International Organisation for Migration

Also by Anita Sharma in openDemocracy:

"The UN Baghdad bombing: one month on" (17 September 2003)

"Women in Iraq: between fear and freedom" (11 March 2004)

The legacy of Vietnam holds a different lesson: that the United States should not abandon the very people it came to help; yet this is precisely what it is doing. The US has resettled just 719 Iraqi refuges in 2007. A Congressional and public outcry seems to have resulted in increased vetting by the departments of state and homeland security; this has enabled more Iraqis to enter the US However, by the the US will fail to meet the target (stated in April 2007 by assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, Ellen Sauerbrey) of admitting up to 25,000 Iraqis by the end of the year.

Ryan C Crocker, the United States ambassador in Baghdad, was alarmed enough by this slow pace and so concerned that Iraqis supporting the coalition were being singled out for retribution that he urged the administration to guarantee visas for all Iraqis helping the US. Thus far, Congress has introduced two bills concerning Iraq's refugees, but neither has left committee: the Responsibility to Iraqi Refugees Act of 2007 (HR 2265), and the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act (Senate bill 1651). Both propose a special immigrant visa for Iraqis employed by or working directly with the US government.

Congress should no longer delay action on this issue, and the administration also needs to do more. In February 2007, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice established a senior-level state-department task force called the Iraq Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons Task Force. We need to hear their plans for providing humanitarian assistance to the region, assisting with asylum for Iraqi refugees.

In the end, the best solution to Iraq's refugee crisis is a peaceful settlement to the country's complicated internal conflicts. Iraq's violence is connected to vicious struggles for political power; a sustainable resolution requires intensified diplomatic initiatives engaging Iraq's leaders and neighbouring countries. Iraq requires a peace process with support of the world's powers and the United Nations.

The US's Iraq debate has too frequently ignored the people most directly affected by the conflicts raging in the country: the Iraqis themselves. The people liberated from Saddam Hussein's tyranny, the ones who waved their purple fingers proudly after voting in Iraq's election as recently as December 2005 - now comprise the biggest refugee crisis in the middle east since 1948.

It is welcome that President Bush now seems interested in staunching the refugee flows and creating conditions so that people can return to their homes. But using a new set of scare tactics by hyping a future refugee crisis if US troops left Iraq, while doing the bare minimum to address the current refugee crisis while US forces remain, can only be described as pure hypocrisy.

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