A Duty to the Displaced

Monday, June 11, 2007

THE UNITED STATES has traditionally helped the victims of international crises. Yet in the Iraq crisis it helped create, it is failing in this duty.

Over 2 million Iraqis have fled their homeland, most since the U.S. invasion four years ago. Each month an additional 20,000 to 30,000 leave, and that departure rate has swelled to more than 50,000 per month when more borders were open. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has referred 8,000 Iraqis for resettlement in the United States since the start of the war -- yet merely 701 refugees have been admitted, including only one in April and one in May.

The vast majority of those who have left Iraq are now in Jordan and Syria. The refugee influx in those countries stresses schools and health services, drives up prices, and creates greater resentment against both Iraqis and the United States. Many Iraqis in neighboring countries are not allowed to work, making them more vulnerable to poverty, radicalization and extralegal activities such as prostitution. The United Nations is working hard to help the most vulnerable of these Iraqis, and the United States should further those efforts with more funding and consider direct assistance to Jordan.

Why is the United States so pitifully behind other developed countries, such as Sweden, which accepts more than a thousand Iraqis each month? Both political motivation and infrastructure are wanting. After four years of conflict, the Department of Homeland Security established special security screening protocols for Iraqi refugees only last month. Iraqis still cannot apply for U.S. resettlement from Iraq; they must leave the country, typically applying from Syria, the only neighboring state with an open border.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) has introduced legislation to help more Iraqis, particularly those who have assisted the United States, the United Nations, U.S. or U.N. contractors, or U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations. The number of Iraqi refugees allowed in by the bill would not greatly affect the number that the State Department has the authority to admit now, given its annual quantity of geographically unallocated refugee visas. Still, supporters of the bill hope that it will pressure the administration to increase the number of refugees actually admitted, since those visa ceilings are not being reached. The bill also would waive expensive application fees and establish five processing facilities within Iraq. Unfortunately, only one Republican, Christopher Shays (Conn.), is co-sponsoring the bill.

The U.S. duty to Iraqis shouldn't be a partisan question. People on every side of the Iraq war debate ought to agree that America should assist and make room for more Iraqis in need.

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