Five Million and Counting — Iraqi Refugees Weigh on Our National Conscience


Critics of the administration have recently turned to take up the cause of Iraqi refugees as an instantiation of US moral failure in the region, to which Steve Clemons and Nir Rosen among others have drawn attention. But even as politicians rhetorically adopt this position, little is actually being done to attend to the needs of what now amounts to nearly 5 million refugees.
Angelina Jolie — after visiting the region and making a moving and compelling plea about Iraqi refugees while in conversation with Nick Kristof at the Clinton Global Initiative last week — has put her money where her mouth is, commiting substantial resources to assist children of conflict. But based on US actions alone, it appears the US government has not suffered the same moral compunctions.
Leave aside the accounts of translators who served with US soldiers and are now being hung out to dry — caught between tribal militias who have threatened their lives and the department of homeland security that denies most of them access to a country they served — there has been very little beyond lip service and a pittance of funds. Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch wrote in the Wall Street Journal in May:

How many Iraqi refugees did the U.S. resettle in 2006? It settled 202. The State Department said it would resettle 7,000 this fiscal year. Halfway through, it has admitted 68. (…)
Whether the U.S. resettles 70 or 7,000, it amounts to a drop in the ocean of Iraqi refugees — 700,000 in Jordan; more than a million in Syria. Iraq’s neighbors are inundated and they need meaningful international support to keep their borders open. Ms. Dobriansky says that “the U.S. has funded 30% of UNHCR’s $60 million Iraq appeal” this year. That’s $18 million. She says the U.S. “intends” to provide $100 million more. Meanwhile, the U.S. is spending $2 billion per week to wage the war that directly or indirectly has caused four million Iraqis to be forced from their homes.

Unlike the pace of “political reconciliation” in Baghdad, the status, treatment, and resettlement also appears to be something we can wield far more control over if we actually attempt to devise a policy. Senators Smith (R-OR) and Kennedy (D-MA) have been working on legislation for the translators but that still sidesteps the plight of millions of innocent civilians fleeing the scene.

refugee map.jpg

The refugee issue, though treated as a “soft” moral issue, also poses a strategic quandary with grave implications. Jordan has estimated it is costing them almost $1 billion per year to deal with new refugees — that is roughly 20% of its budget (estimated by the CIA to be $5.5 billion). For a country already in need of substantial economic reform and readjustment, this is simply not sustainable. And should Jordan (or another Arab state) falter under the weight of such a burden, it will create dangerous opportunities for manipulation by al Qaeda, Iran, or another actor.
Nir Rosen, who’s been drawing more attention to the complications of the Iraqi refugees than some would like, writes in a new piece:

The crisis in Iraq has the entire region on edge waiting to see if Iraq will come to them. While Sunni leaders in the region, whether in Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia, have had to pay lip service to anti-imperialism and Arab nationalism by calling for an end to the occupation, the truth is that off the record nothing frightens them more than an American withdrawal from Iraq.
Fear of successive waves of Iraqi refugees resonates throughout the Middle East, and no discussion of Arab governments’ reluctance to acknowledge their plight can begin without reference to the Palestinian experience. … The presence of the Palestinians also contributed to the destabilization of several countries, while in places like Lebanon they were preyed upon by more powerful militias, which slaughtered many of them. Today radical groups based in Palestinian refugee camps are exporting fighters to Iraq.
Unable to return home, running out of savings, carrying with them sectarian grudges and many with military experience, Iraqi refugees may yet destabilize much of the region.

Supporters of the war and now the surge ought to be forced to defend their position by addressing these critical moral and strategic questions — Is it not our moral obligation to attend to the plight of the millions of refugees we created through this war? And is it not our strategic interest to help resettle refugees to prevent our allied Arab states from buckling and collapsing under the weight of the flood of refugees?
By the same token, an implication of Rosen’s argument is that advocates of withdrawal need to be pressed on the same questions. Most Sunni governments expect a second exodus should the US withdraw and, even if it turns out to be in our broader strategic interest to do so, advocates of various paths of withdrawal have to formulate a policy to contend with these regional and ethical concerns.
Rosen’s concluding thoughts about our direct ownership of this refugee crisis ought to weigh heavily on all lawmakers seeking to slough off the responsibility:

It has become popular with former supporters of the war to blame the Iraqis for the Americans’ failure. The Iraqis did not choose democracy or the Iraqis did not choose freedom, Americans like to say, or the Iraqis have to decide to stop killing each other or Iraqis have to “step up.” But such complaints misplace the blame. Sunni and Shia Iraqis protested the American occupation as soon as it began, and demanded elections and sovereignty. The U.S. ignored their demands and instead imposed a dictator on them, Paul Bremer, hoping he would pave the way for an Iraqi strongman to rule in our stead. Other former supporters of the war, echoing the simplistic sentiments heard during the Balkan wars, now blame the alleged “ancient hatred” between Sunnis and Shias, who have been fighting each other for “thousands of years.” But Iraq had no history of civil war or sectarian violence even approaching this scale until the Americans arrived. Iraq is not Rwanda, where Hutus and Tutsis slaughtered each other and America could pretend it had no role. We did this to Iraq. And it is time the U.S and the international community “step up” to the resulting humanitarian nightmare.

–Sameer Lalwani


22 comments on “Five Million and Counting — Iraqi Refugees Weigh on Our National Conscience

  1. Marcia says:

    “And it is time the U.S and the international community “step up” to the resulting humanitarian nightmare.””.
    I could not agree more with Nir Rosen, but when has the Western community “stepped up” unless there are juicy pickings to be had on the bottom line from subsidies allotted to US controlled programs that flow back into the coffers of cronies?
    Now, by preemptive war, we have created another “trail of tears” which naturally we claim is not our fault and just as in the old film, “The 25th Hour,” we will tell these destitue refugees to keep smiling as they drag on day after day in miserable camps where, if Mrs. Barbara Bush could focus” her beautiful mind” for a few moments, she would probably conclude, as she did in Houston for the New Orleans refugees, that things are turning out rather well for them. .
    The corporate system we have imposed on the world is choking off our life blood… our humanity


  2. .... says:

    very uninformative, lol.


  3. andrew says:

    I read in the Jewish Ledger that the new Israel Lobby book is full of information sooo ya, I don’t know about all that lobby mumbo jumbo…


  4. ... says:

    poa – bush and killing crew are happy to drop DU – wmds in iraq, but would they be so casual about it if it was dropped on a farm in crawford texas? i agree with you, these individuals need to be tried for crimes against humanity. if nothing else it will teach those who come after us to not rush so quickly into war..


  5. PissedOffAmerican says:

    From Janes…..
    Non-Subscriber Extract
    Iraq: the DU dust settles
    02 April 2004
    Iraq: the DU dust settles
    Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the incidence of radioactive contamination on Iraqi territory is being linked to the use of depleted uranium (DU) in munitions used by Coalition forces. JID’s weapons specialist reviews the continuing political fall-out for Washington and its allies.
    DU has created controversy since it was used in the 1991 Gulf War. Activists and veterans’ groups blame US weapons containing DU as the prime cause of ‘Gulf War syndrome’, an elusive combination of maladies that has affected more than 50,000 US veterans. Iraqi medical authorities also claim that increases in child cancers and birth defects were caused by DU contamination from tank battles on farmland west of Basra.
    The Uranium Medical Research Center (UMRC) estimates the amount of DU used in the 2003 war at 1,700 tonnes, deployed in fighting vehicles, tanks, and aircraft. According to a UMRC research team, DU rounds used by US and British forces may have subjected parts of the country to high levels of radioactive contamination. The team’s preliminary tests showed that air, soil and water samples contained ‘hundreds to thousands of times’ the normal levels of radiation. Tanks used in the battle for Nasiriyah examined by the UMRC team were found to be emitting several hundred times the background level of radiation.
    Depleted uranium – U-238 – is a waste by-product of uranium enrichment and is 40 per cent less radioactive than natural uranium, but remains radioactive for 4.5 billion years. DU is used in munitions because its density is 1.7 times that of lead; ignites and burns on hitting a hard target, acting as a self-sharpening penetrator; and has exceptional performance against armoured targets. Its hardness also makes it ideal for use in armour plating.
    288 of 769 words
    End of non-subscriber extract


  6. ... says:

    right on poa.. too bad no one in american politics can say the things you do with forcefulness. if they did, the plutocracy would never let them get elected.


  7. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “Do we really want to see a Middle East full of failed states due to the refugee crisis?”
    Who is “we”? Undoubtedly, an extreme refugee crisis, a death toll in the billions, and numerous failed Muslim states fits perfectly into the aims of some of these monsters calling the shots, both in Israel, and the top tiers of the neo-con camp. Have you seen that the cholera outbreak has spread into Iran? And there is, of course the elephant in the room that no one will discuss, the complete and utter contamination of Iraq’s environment with DU dust, the gift that just keeps giving. So yes, if you are referring to the framers of this horrendous unfolding holocaust, they DO want to see the scenario you describe. Can you think of any other reason such obviously insane policies would be pursued?


  8. J says:

    You stated:
    “I didn’t say that’s what we should do. I have no idea what we should do. But I do think it is important to remember that we are still fighting a war in Iraq; and it is not typical for refugees to seek safety in the arms of their invaders, is it?”
    So you are saying.. it is important to remember we are fighting a war, and possibly (you are not sure) refugees don’t typically seek safety in the arms of their invaders. Is this a question or an argument? Are you suggesting that if something was not typically practiced historically, we should not be obligated to practice it today? What about our current strategic interests? Do we really want to see a Middle East full of failed states due to the refugee crisis?


  9. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Only five million? But golly, thats below the fatality goal. Don’t tell this monster Cheney, or he’s liable to break out the nukes


  10. pauline says:

    Don’t the neocon, blood-thirsty warmongers want to commit deliberate and systematic destruction against those…those sand…those sand darkies?
    Come on, what’s a little racial genocide among “freedom fighting” neocons and firsters?
    Those (innocent) children, women, elderly and others have got to be connected to terrorists somehow, right?
    And if you don’t believe that, the war machine media will shove it down your throat until you start to see things their way.


  11. Tenzing says:

    It’s a disgrace that the U. S. government under Bush and the current Congress has done so little to help the 5 million people who’ve been driven out of their homes and into camps or neighboring countries by this idiotic and evil war.
    So I second Sasha’s motion to help Iraqi refugees by going to the website and taking an action that will provide direct aid to the displaced.
    At least as individual Americans we can help a little, even if our rogue government (and by extension, our nation) is shamed before the world for its lack of generosity.


  12. Amir says:

    Yes, there are examples of combatants providing sanctuary as well as help to the civilian population of antagonist: Iran provided refuge to the Kurdish as well as Arab civilians during the Iran-Iraq war as well as bearly 2 year after the cease fire in 1990-91. At the time, the two countries were formally at war although a temporary cease fire was anounced and respected.
    I guess Iranians and Iran treat their supposed “enemy” better than Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld gang treat their friends ( ).


  13. Bill R. says:

    Nir Rosen’s writing and reporting are inspirational. However, he’s talking to people (Bush regime) who don’t care, who don’t accept responsibility, who are a gang of thugs and sociopaths, and sadly to a nation (ours) that doesn’t care either. We don’t care whether our most vulnerable go without health care, we don’t care whether the Iraqis live or die. We’re a nation without integrity and without a conscience. We just flat don’t care about anything except shopping.


  14. PissedOffAmerican says:

    If we had a “national conscience”, Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld would be standing before a federal court, and all funding to Israel would have been cut off, long ago.


  15. Sasha says:

    This is truly a humanitarian disaster that can’t wait for political solutions. If you would like to be a part of the solution:
    In peace & action,


  16. ... says:

    chris brown – americans aren’t encouraged to think about iraqi refugees… americans are supposed to think of supporting the troops and how many american troops have died in the iraq war…patriotism 101. the media doesn’t want to encourage a consciousness of anything else..


  17. JohnH says:

    Echoes of the Palestinian expulsion resonate with Arabs, as well they should.
    And Americans and Europeans got upset with Serbian behavior as recently as 10 years ago, which echoed Hitler’s lebensraum.
    Strange how it’s OK to do ethnic cleansing in the Middle East but not in Europe.


  18. Chris Brown says:

    Shouldn’t the header read – Iraqi Refugees ShouldWeigh on Our National Conscience?
    I mean really, what percentage of the USA population do you really think has though at all about the subject?


  19. Dan Kervick says:

    bleh, I didn’t say that’s what we should do. I have no idea what we should do. But I do think it is important to remember that we are still fighting a war in Iraq; and it is not typical for refugees to seek safety in the arms of their invaders, is it?


  20. bleh says:

    “This really is awful. But is it unusual?”
    Ugh. Yes, let’s just tell the penniless family stuck in a foreign country that we’re sorry, but this is simply the way it’s always been done.


  21. Carroll says:

    Good article. Right to the point.


  22. Dan Kervick says:

    This really is awful. But is it unusual? Are there many examples in history of assistance to a country’s war refugees coming from one of the actual combatants in the war, while the war is still going on?


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