Bush Can Do More For Refugees

DAKAR, SENEGAL - There is George W. Bush and there's Larry Siems.

Siems is among those Americans, like Senator Ted Kennedy, who want their president to take moral responsibility for creating the refugee crisis in Iraq.

They want him to admit at least 100,000 Iraqis into the United States, the way Washington resettled 140,000 Indo-Chinese after the Vietnam War.

Siems was here at the annual meeting of International PEN, the writers' group. As programs director of the PEN American Center, he has taken up the cause of Iraqi poets, essayists, novelists, translators and journalists.

There's no knowing how many of those are among the 2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan.

What we do know is that a disproportionate number of them are professionals. They are the ones who could afford to leave or were forced to because they were branded American collaborators or targeted simply for their liberal views on pluralism, secularism, etc.

Take the case of Omar Ghanim Fathi, a lecturer in Mosul. No sooner had he written for a newspaper set up by the Americans than he faced death threats. Students told him to his face in class: "You deserve to die."

He was lucky to escape, to Norway as a refugee.

Translators working for the coalition forces, or foreign contractors or international agencies have become the most endangered species, along with those working for the Western media as stringers, handlers and fixers.

(Foreign reporters are mostly confined to the Green Zone, and rely heavily on Iraqis from across the country.)

Such Iraqis, said to number about 100,000, are marked. Many have given up work, gone into hiding or escaped to Damascus or Amman.

But Bush refuses to acknowledge the humanitarian crisis. Doing so means admitting that his Iraq project has been a failure. So he lets the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees struggle on against impossible odds.

The U.S. embassy in Baghdad does not have a visa section. Iraqis cannot hope to travel to other Western countries, either because they have no passports. In 2003, the Americans cancelled Saddam Hussein's passports and issued new ones. But within a year, they cancelled those as well, because of increasing forgery.

To get a new passport, Iraqis must risk life and limb and go to the Green Zone. If they make it, they get marked for death.

The people's only option is to flee to neighbouring Jordan or Syria. Jordan has just about closed its border, so Iraqis have been going to Syria. There, they get a three-month visa. When it runs out, they must return to the Iraqi border to re-enter Syria with a new visa.

Last month, Senator Kennedy introduced a bill to admit 100,000 Iraqis who have worked for the U.S. government or the military or media or non-governmental agencies.

Siems says there's even Congressional resistance, given the sensitivity over security checks, plus the general climate of fear and the demonization of Arabs. The governor of Ohio has already said Iraqis are not welcome in his state.

Siems says: "The refugee problem is one of the most important moral issues of our time" - for the United States and its allies.

It is tempting to say it is America's problem, and not ours, especially since Canada played no part in the Iraqi mess. But we are helping in such areas as training Iraqis in various fields. Yet on the refugee front, the Stephen Harper government remains shamefully mum.

Haroon Siddiqui, the Star's editorial page editor emeritus, appears Thursday in World and Sunday in the A-section. Contact him at hsiddiq@ thestar.ca

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