U.S. must do more for Iraqi refugees

June 20, 2007|By Courtland Robinson

Today is World Refugee Day, when more than 70 countries around the globe are commemorating the humanity of 33 million people displaced inside and outside their countries and the inhumanity that has forced them to leave their homes.

The Scandinavian countries are launching a campaign, "Let's Keep Them Safe," aimed at discouraging forced repatriation of refugees and asylum-seekers. Angola is holding a poetry contest to raise awareness about sexual and gender-based violence. Brazil will host a soccer tournament, Nepal is sponsoring a film festival, and Romania has organized a handicrafts bazaar.

If any events are scheduled in Iraq, there is no record of it. For the 2 million Iraqis who are internally displaced and the 2.2 million more who have sought refuge in neighboring countries, it will be another day to best keep their heads down.

Iraq has been called the world's fastest-growing refugee crisis. The largest numbers - 1.2 million, at last count - are in Syria, with another 750,000 in Jordan, 200,000 in the Persian Gulf states and 100,000 in Egypt. As an estimated 50,000 more arrive per month, the neighboring countries have begun to construct new barriers, physical and bureaucratic, to entry. Including the 2 million internally displaced Iraqis, nearly 15 percent of the Iraqi population is displaced inside or outside the country.

Half of these people are children. A significant proportion are doctors, nurses, teachers - people in the so-called helping professions, whose departure has a double impact, creating risk for themselves and a burden on those left behind, lacking basic health and educational services. The needs are enormous as durable solutions are sought for more than 4 million people, but one solution, international resettlement, must be employed more generously, and especially by the United States.

America has a long and proud tradition of resettlement and is still the largest refugee resettlement country in the world, though numbers have fallen significantly since 9/11 and its aftermath. In the years following the Persian Gulf war, the United States accepted more than 30,000 Iraqi refugees. From 2003 to early this year, we have resettled fewer than 500 Iraqi refugees.

This is despite clear evidence that thousands of Iraqis who have worked with American soldiers and civilians in Iraq - from drivers and labor contractors to translators and diplomats - have been targeted, along with their families, for violent reprisal. If they leave their country, that gives them a credible claim to refugee status; if they stay, they are in danger. Either way, the United States has a moral obligation to respond.

In the last several months, the U.S. government has begun to show signs of recognizing the scale of the crisis and the need for broader humanitarian action. America's resettlement pledge stands at 7,000 for this fiscal year, which ends in September. But despite referrals by the U.N. high commissioner for refugees of more than 3,000 refugee cases, as of May, only 69 Iraqis had entered the United States. Last month, the Department of Homeland Security announced the development of "enhanced security screening procedures," designed to supplement regular checks of refugee applicants. Refugee advocates have applauded these new measures, but many say that more will be needed if the United States is to provide more timely protection for those who have suffered for their work with Americans. A bill pending in Congress would increase resettlement numbers by an additional 20,000 and authorize funding to expand processing facilities in the region.

The theme for World Refugee Day in the United States is "A New Home, a New Life," with events planned around the country. Here in Baltimore, the International Rescue Committee collaborated with the Creative Alliance to host a weekend evening of film, music and discussion on refugee resettlement. IRC shares space with three other resettlement agencies at the Baltimore Resettlement Center, an initiative supported by the Maryland Office for New Americans.

Though Maryland has resettled fewer than 1,000 refugees in each of the past five years, its commitments are deep, and local resettlement agencies stand ready to open their doors to take a fair share of Iraqi refugees. There could be no more apt moment to show support for displaced Iraqis, and the millions of others forced from their homes and seeking to rebuild their lives in safety and dignity.

Courtland Robinson is deputy director of the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. His e-mail is crobinso@jhsph.edu.

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