U.S. slow to meet needs, refugees say

sun special report exodus from iraq

Despite substantial American contributions, displaced Iraqis' needs dwarf all efforts to aid them

December 29, 2008|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,matthew.brown@baltsun.com

DOUMA, Syria - Second of three parts

Mustafa Hamad Rassoul doesn't see how his family can survive.

Back in Baghdad, the 55-year-old Iraqi Kurd says, the money he made running a clothing shop was more than enough to house and feed his two wives and 10 children. But here in Syria, where he came last year after being threatened by the Mahdi Army, the food and cash assistance his family receives doesn't last the month.

Rassoul blames the United States.

"America always talks about human rights," he says while waiting at the U.N. refugee registration center in this city outside Damascus. "They come and say they are liberating us. Let them find a place where I can live."

The demand echoes around the world. The United States has admitted more than 16,000 Iraqi refugees in the past two years - including 202 who have settled in Maryland - and expects to more than double that number by the end of 2009. The nearly $570 million the United States has spent since the beginning of 2007 to improve conditions for displaced Iraqis, both in Iraq and abroad, has surpassed the contributions of the rest of the world combined.

Critics say it is not enough.

"The United States is responsible for this mess, frankly," says Joost Hiltermann, a Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group, an independent organization that advises governments on conflict resolution. "It certainly was responsible for allowing the chaos that enveloped Iraq. It should therefore bear the responsibilities."

More than 2 million Iraqis have fled the kidnappings, car bombings and killings that have racked their homeland since the U.S.-led invasion almost six years ago. Most remain in Syria, Jordan and other neighboring countries, where they are drawing down their savings while burdening local services.

Officials on all sides warn of a population whose growing desperation could threaten stability in the region and beyond.

A coalition of advocates, including Refugees International, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, is calling on the United States to nearly triple the money it spends on the displaced Iraqis while allowing the entry of as many as 105,000 in 2009 - a sevenfold increase over current admissions.

"It's true that the U.S. takes more refugees than most countries," says Krist?le Younes, a senior advocate for Refugees International. "It does provide more money. But in this particular situation, we need to look at the military budget versus the humanitarian budget. The resettlement numbers versus the ones who actually need to be resettled.

"When we look at those numbers, we realize how small the response has been."

Ambassador James B. Foley agrees that the United States has a "unique responsibility here" and that the security and stability of the refugee population is in the U.S. national interest. But the State Department's senior coordinator for Iraq refugee issues says it would be "impossible, really, to satisfy each and every critic."

"We have developed an increasingly robust processing capacity for Iraqi refugees in multiple locations across the Middle East," Foley says, which put the United States "in a position to significantly increase" the number admitted to the United States for resettlement in 2009. "On assistance," he adds, "we will remain in the forefront of efforts to support and sustain displaced Iraqis both inside and outside the country."

Now, he says, the United States wants to see the rest of the world - particularly Europe, the wealthy nations of the Middle East, and Iraq itself - join in. "The fact of the matter is that we stepped forward with steadily increasing contributions throughout [2008] because others largely did not," he says. "Looking to the future, this pattern is hardly sustainable."

With the election of the Barack Obama, refugee advocates are hopeful of more help. The president-elect hasn't spoken about resettlements. But during the early stages of the campaign, he pledged to increase financial support for the displaced.

"This mass movement of people is a threat to the security of the Middle East and to our common humanity," he told a campaign audience before the Iowa primary. "We have a strategic interest - and a moral obligation - to act."

By the time Foley was chosen last year to lead the State Department response to the Iraqi displacement, the Bush administration had drawn withering criticism for seeming to play down a gathering crisis.

On the eve of the March 2003 invasion, the United States and others dispatched aid workers to the region around Iraq to respond to a possible refugee exodus. But it wasn't until nearly three years later, when the February 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra touched off new levels of violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, that large numbers began loading up cars and buses for Jordan and Syria.

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