USA TODAY — Refugees are an overlooked casualty of Iraq war


February 6, 2007

Casualties of the war in Iraq are many; among them are the 3.8 million refugees (including some who fled before the U.S. invasion) and internally displaced people. They are the hidden victims of the war in Iraq.

Not long ago, in 1991, the first Gulf War produced another massive refugee crisis in Iraq. Encouraged by the promise of U.S. support, millions of Iraqis responded to President George H.W. Bush’s call “to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein … to step aside.” These Iraqis fought the good fight, but U.S. support did not materialize.

Hussein responded by sending troops to quell the rebellion by Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south. Scores of Kurdish refugees were killed by Iraqi soldiers or died on snow-covered slopes. What ended this crisis were the horrific images of stranded Kurdish refugees aired on CNN, which resulted in the declaration of a no-fly zone in Northern Iraq.

Now, the United States and its allies again have caused a refugee crisis in Iraq — “the largest population movement in the Middle East since Palestinians were displaced following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948,” according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But this time, CNN’s cameras are missing.

Forgotten refugees queue outside foreign embassies and the offices of the UNHCR in Syria and Jordan, pleading for acceptance as refugees by the West. The UNHCR estimates there are between 500,000 and 1 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, 700,000 in Jordan, 40,000 in Lebanon and 20,000-80,000 in Egypt; 1.8 million are internally displaced. But these refugees face closed doors everywhere.

The Iraqis probably could have seen this coming. Afghan refugees faced a similar fate after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Afghanistan was soon declared a safe country. Western states encouraged refugees to return home to rebuild their country. For most, it didn’t work out. Soon scores of Afghans were driven from their places of birth and forced to wander elsewhere in the world for refuge.

This seems to be the future that awaits Iraqi refugees. Only 466 have been granted resettlement in the USA in the past two years. The situation is not much better in Great Britain. Evidently, to allow admission to refugees is to accept failure in establishing democracy in Iraq.

The long-term solution depends on ending the violence, restoring stability and generating jobs. Because peace is highly unlikely anytime soon, Iraqi refugees require immediate attention. But the U.N.’s refugee office is understaffed and underfunded. For example, in Syria, UNHRC’s budget last year was less than $1 per Iraqi refugee.

It is critical that Western nations finance a special Iraqi Refugee Fund that would let the U.N. process an increasing number of Iraqi applicants seeking resettlement. A part of the fund could be given to Syria and Jordan to help them provide temporary housing, health care, education and other basic needs to refugees. Western nations should increase the number of Iraqis they accept for temporary or permanent resettlement.

U.S. embassies in Syria and Jordan should run their own resettlement programs, clearing the most vulnerable Iraqis. Using similar resettlement programs, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were resettled in the United States after U.S. forces withdrew from Vietnam in 1975; 840 Iraqis were granted admission after the first Gulf War in 1991.

Helping to solve the current crisis is a moral obligation of those who contributed to its creation. The Iraqi refugee crisis and its solution must become an integral part of the public debate about the U.S. involvement in Iraq.

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