Saturday, November 10, 2007

Why is the U.S. continuing to drag its feet resettling Iraqi refugees?

The United States resettled 900,000 refugees from Vietnam following the war in Southeast Asia and 12,000 refugees from Iraq following the first Gulf War. It is estimated that more than 2 million Iraqis have had to flee the violence and ethnic cleansing in their country during the current conflict. Yet the U.S. has accepted only a few hundred. This is particularly disgraceful when it comes to the Iraqis who have assisted American forces in that country and have been abandoned. Those particular Iraqis risked their lives for the Americans and are targets of every group and militia that has a grievance with the Americans.

George Packer reminds us of how refugees were handled following the first Gulf War:
In the fall of 1996, the U.S. military evacuated more than six thousand Iraqis—Kurds and others who had worked with American agencies in the north, and whose lives were directly threatened by Saddam’s army—halfway across the world to Guam. There they were screened, processed for asylum, and assigned sponsors in an effort that involved more than a thousand American soldiers and civilians. Almost all of the evacuees ended up Stateside within seven months. Major General John Dallager, the Joint Task Force commander of Operation Pacific Haven, said, “Our success will undoubtedly be a role model for future humanitarian efforts.”

Undoubtedly. Major General Dallager didn’t count on the moral abdication of the Bush Administration in the face of a similar but much larger and more compelling humanitarian crisis. Recently, some conscience-stricken American officials have privately begun to ask why the model of Operation Pacific Haven can’t be emulated today. Flying Iraqis to Guam would solve every problem, real and invented, that the Administration claims is holding up resettlement: the inability of Homeland Security interviewers to meet with refugees in Syria; the near-impossibility of Iraqis getting into neighboring countries; the supposed security concerns that prevent the U.S. from screening Iraqis inside Iraq. With the Guam option, none of this would matter.
The Iraqi refugee crisis needs to be addressed because it can destabilize the region. (And this isn’t even considering the problem of internal displacement in Iraq of another 2 million people.) But of equal or even greater importance it needs to be addressed as a moral issue. It is simply the right thing to do.

However, the administration keeps dragging its feet because addressing the problem and accepting greater numbers of refugees as part of that solution would look bad. As far as they are concerned it is better to let Iraqis suffer in refugee camps and abandon Iraqis who assisted American troops than admit mistakes were made that resulted in this conflict spiraling out of control.

We are long overdue for a change in attitude and policy in Washington about this issue.

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