FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Refugees: The Missing Iraq Benchmark
United States Policymakers Must Address the Humanitarian Tragedy of Millions of Iraqis
Displaced In and From Their Country, Say Anita Sharma & Brian Katulis
WASHINGTON - September 7 - 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 same 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
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
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.
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.
Anita Sharma and Brian Katulis work in National Security at the Center
for American Progress