We Can't Ignore Iraq's Refugees
With the nation still at war in Iraq, each of us is deeply grateful to the brave men and women in our armed forces who celebrated the holidays this year with half their hearts at home and half in Iraq. But this year especially it is essential that we also reflect on another human cost of the war -- the hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi men, women and children who have fled their homes and often their country to escape the violence of a nation increasingly at war with itself.
The refugees are witnesses to the cruelty that stains our age, and they cannot be overlooked. America bears heavy responsibility for their plight. We have a clear obligation to stop ignoring it and help chart a sensible course to ease the refugee crisis. Time is not on our side. We must act quickly and effectively.
Today, within Iraq, 1.6 million people have already fled or been expelled from their homes. An additional 1.8 million, fleeing sectarian violence, kidnappings, extortion, death threats and carnage, have sought refuge in neighboring countries. At least 700,000 are in Jordan, 600,000 in Syria, 100,000 in Egypt, 54,000 in Iran and 20,000 in Lebanon. Typically they are not living in refugee camps but have relocated in urban areas, where they must draw on their own meager resources to pay for food and shelter, and must depend on the good graces of the host governments.
The neighboring countries, in turn, are under enormous financial stress from the rapidly increasing needs of the refugees. In Jordan, they now make up more than 10 percent of the population -- the equivalent of 30 million people flooding America's shores. These countries are increasingly unable to meet the refugees' basic needs.
Borders are being closed to more and more of these men, women and children, with the result that many who are most in need or in danger are trapped in the Iraqi caldron of violence. As it continues to boil, the humanitarian crisis will only worsen.
The recent report of the Iraq Study Group rightly concluded that if this refugee situation "is not addressed, Iraq and the region could be further destabilized, and the humanitarian suffering could be severe." Sadly, as with so many other aspects of the Iraq war -- from the growing threat of the insurgency to the need to provide adequate armor for our troops -- the administration has failed to recognize the breadth of the crisis and to adjust our policy to address the plain facts on the ground.
There is an overwhelming need for temporary relief and permanent resettlement. Last year, however, America accepted only 202 Iraqi refugees, and next year we plan to accept approximately the same number. We and other nations of the world need to do far better.
Thousands of these refugees are fleeing because they have been affiliated in some way with the United States. Cooks, drivers and translators have been called traitors for cooperating with the United States. They know all too well that the fate of those who work with U.S. civilians or military forces can be sudden death. Yet, beyond a congressionally mandated program that accepts 50 Iraqi translators from Iraq and Afghanistan each year, the administration has done nothing to resettle brave Iraqis who provided assistance in some way to our military. This lack of conscience is fundamentally unfair. We need to do much more to help Iraqi refugees, especially those who have helped our troops.
Our nation is spending $8 billion a month to wage the war in Iraq. Yet to meet the urgent humanitarian needs of the refugees who have fled the war, the State Department plans to spend only $20 million in the current fiscal year.
America needs to lead, but we cannot adequately respond to this overwhelming crisis alone. Because of the magnitude of the problem, we also need action by Iraq's neighbors and the rest of the world. An essential first step could be to hold an international conference on the issue -- ideally sponsored by the countries in the region and the United Nations -- to begin to deal with the growing number and needs of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons. The United States should participate in the conference and provide substantial support for the refugees. Doing so would encourage other nations to address the crisis, help the refugees and displaced persons, and assist the countries shouldering the greatest burden.
Working with Iraq's neighbors and the United Nations, we can encourage rapid action to relieve suffering and save lives. And a productive conference could lead in turn to broader discussions and greater progress on the future of Iraq.
Clearly, in the long term we need to work together to find a way to end the violence and stop the hemorrhaging of lives. In the short term, America needs to respond far more effectively to the needs of the millions of refugees and displaced persons who are suffering so much from the war. Failure to act quickly and cooperatively with other nations will only result in more carnage, chaos and instability in the region.
The writer is a Democratic senator from Massachusetts and incoming chairman of the Senate immigration, border security and refugee subcommittee.