A crisis over Iraqi refugees

Posted: September 19, 2007

When President Bush spoke to the nation about Iraq last week he predicted that if American troops left soon, "Iraq could face a humanitarian nightmare."

He's right. Things could get worse. But Iraqis already face a humanitarian nightmare as millions of refugees flee their homes to escape ethnic cleansing. More than 2 million are displaced within Iraq, and 2.2 million have poured into neighboring countries, according to U.N. agencies. That's around a sixth of Iraq's entire population, many living in desperate conditions, with tens of thousands still escaping monthly.

This is a refugee crisis of a magnitude that can destabilize the entire region. So why didn't it rate a mention in the president's speech?

"I'm very puzzled by why it's gotten such short shrift," says Kenneth Bacon, president of Refugees International, one of the few international aid agencies addressing the problem.

But we know the reason. As Bacon points out, administration policy is to stabilize Iraq so refugees can go home. Meantime - with stability still a mirage - refugee flows are on the rise as the desperate run for their lives.

This refugee crisis creates a security threat to the region - and a moral challenge to the United States. Among the current and potential refugees are thousands of Iraqis who have been threatened with death because they worked with U.S. officials. Many have risked their lives to help Americans, yet the United States has been pitifully slow in helping those under direct threat. In July, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, urged the administration to grant immigrant visas to all embassy staff members in need, after nine U.S. embassy employees had been killed, including a married couple who were kidnapped and executed.

When Crocker sent his cable in July, fewer than 300 Iraqi refugees had been admitted since October 2006. The State Department pledged to speed things up, and admit a total of 2,000 by Sept. 30, but so far the number has risen to only 829.

Crocker got so mad that on Sept. 7 he sent a blunt (and leaked) cable to State. The title: "Iraqi Refugee Processing: Can We Speed It Up?" His frustration is echoed by many U.S. soldiers who have been trying in vain to rescue their translators, who are in hiding or have had relatives murdered because they helped Americans in Iraq.

I have observed up close the price courageous Iraqi translators often pay for their invaluable help to American journalists. Just among those I've known in Baghdad, one lost her husband and daughter; another her husband, brother and son; one fled the country; another was killed; another is in hiding. Some estimate that 100,000 Iraqis have worked with Americans; with their families that adds up to 500,000 people at risk. So how is it possible that we have let only 829 Iraqi refugees enter our country over the past year?

State blames it on post-9/11 security concerns, and the bureaucratic delays that security checks create. But as Bacon points out, many Iraqis who seek refugee status are well known to the Americans they've worked with and have already been heavily vetted and checked. This is not the likely path for a terrorist entering the United States.

A bipartisan group of senators has recognized the need to overcome the bureaucratic malaise on refugees. Republicans Sam Brownback and Gordon Smith have joined Democrat Ted Kennedy in proposing legislation that would ease the sky-high barriers confronting Iraqi refugees.

But what's needed is leadership from the top, the kind described by Juliet Taft, a refugee expert who worked with President Gerald Ford on settling Vietnamese refugees. According to Taft, the United States evacuated and resettled more than 131,000 Vietnamese between May 1 and Dec. 20, 1975. The key, she said on the Aug. 15 60 Minutes, "was the sustained commitment on . . . the part of President Ford."

The Iraqi refugee crisis can't wait until Iraq is stable. Nor is it sufficient just to focus on those who helped Americans in Iraq. Beyond letting more in, the White House needs to help refugees flooding neighboring countries. Syria and Jordan can't handle the more than two million Iraqis now crammed into their small countries. These refugees have no jobs, their children can't go to school, and many are running out of savings, leading some to turn to begging and prostitution.

Iraqi middle-class kids thrust into deprivation, with no hope of schooling and no future - one could hardly imagine a better recruiting ground for Islamists. The United States should be mobilizing refugee relief funds for Jordan and Syria, which have gotten almost no help.

This is a moral and strategic imperative that can't be delayed until the next Iraq progress report. If he really wants to confront the challenge of Iraq refugees, President Bush need only emulate Gerald Ford.

Contact columnist Trudy Rubin at 215-854-5823 or trubin@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/trudyrubin.

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