“A ‘Surge’ for Refugees”

A ‘Surge’ for Refugees

April 22, 2008, New York Times
Op-Ed Contributors

IT is a grave humanitarian crisis: 1.5 million Iraqi refugees living in deplorable and declining conditions in Syria and Jordan.

(Photo: Jiro Ose) The pricey bus fare in Amman keeps Samira, 16, out of school. She was first in her class in Iraq and dreamed of becoming a doctor. Last year her family fled to Amman to escape constant bombings over their Baghdad home. Now she stares at the four walls of a small apartment in East Amman that she shares with six family members. She lives in a state of excruciating boredom with endless hours to conjure up the death and destruction caused by all those explosions.

They are clustered not in camps but in overcrowded urban neighborhoods, crammed into dark, squalid apartments. Many have been traumatized by extreme violence. Their savings are dwindling; many cannot afford to pay for rent, heat and food; few have proper medical care.

They are clustered not in camps but in overcrowded urban neighborhoods, crammed into dark, squalid apartments. Many have been traumatized by extreme violence. Their savings are dwindling; many cannot afford to pay for rent, heat and food; few have proper medical care.

After meeting with refugees, leaders in both Syria and Jordan and United Nations experts, we came to the inescapable conclusion that this crisis could endure for years and that much more help is needed now.

There is absolutely no denying that the United States has a special responsibility to help. The sectarian violence these Iraqi refugees have fled is a byproduct of the invasion and its chaotic aftermath — yet America has paradoxically done far less than its traditionally generous response.

But while the United States must lead, the scale of this humanitarian emergency and its uncertain duration require international contributions, including the active participation of European and Gulf Arab states.

The refugees face three alternatives: return, remain or resettle. None is a good option. It is too dangerous to go back, they will become increasingly destitute if they remain where they are, and yet only a few will be resettled in other countries.

The United States and the international community must therefore take three actions to ease the plight of displaced Iraqis until the day comes when they can safely return home.

First, these refugees simply need more aid. We estimate that to serve this population a minimum of $2 billion is needed annually for at least the next two to four years and it is fitting that the United States cover at least half of this cost.

Contributions from the international community have been woefully inadequate. So far this year the United States has given only $208 million in direct humanitarian assistance for displaced Iraqis. The gulf states have given $11 million since last October. And with its significant oil funds, the Iraqi government must do better in assisting its own uprooted citizens: the $25 million it has allocated in this year’s budget is grossly insufficient. Host countries must also allow nongovernmental organizations better access to Iraqi refugees and affected local communities.

Second, because a sizable population of Iraqis will not return home under any circumstances, more refugees must be resettled in more third countries. Unfortunately, many doors have closed or are being closed. Again, the United States must lead, and it is failing: our government has resettled fewer than 5,000 Iraqi refugees since the war began.

This year America should at a minimum meet its target of resettling 12,000 Iraqi refugees and fulfilling its commitment to admit 5,000 Iraqis (and their dependents) who have worked for the United States and are eligible for special immigrant visas.

In the years ahead, the United States can realistically admit at least 30,000 Iraqis annually. European countries — especially Britain, which, like America, bears a particular responsibility — should be taking in larger numbers of vulnerable Iraqis like single women with children and those who worked for the coalition.

Third, it is important to bring attention to the Iraq refugee problem. To this end, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, should organize a high-level conference of regional countries and interested donors.

The conference should examine the plight of Iraqi refugees and pledge concrete help. Because there is also an urgent need for actions that can improve conditions in Iraq and facilitate the safe, voluntary return of many refugees, the conference must include foreign ministers who can grapple with the diplomatic and political aspects of the crisis, not simply the humanitarian ones.

Discussions about Iraq both here and abroad inevitably focus on the surge and on timelines for troop withdrawal. Missing is any realistic assessment of the fate of Iraqi refugees, 1.5 million people who have a crucial role to play in ensuring the long-term stability of the region.

Morton Abramowitz is a former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. George Rupp is a former president of Columbia. John Whitehead is a former deputy secretary of state. James Wolfensohn is a former president of the World Bank. They are members of the International Rescue Committee’s board.

Comments (2)


Majhool said:

Iraq Comment?

April 23rd, 2008, 3:33 pm


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