Fleeing Our Responsibility
The U.S. Owes Succor to Iraqi Refugees

By Julia Taft
Sunday, June 24, 2007

Last month an Iraqi couple working for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad were kidnapped and executed. Their deaths were not acknowledged by the State Department, and the media made little mention of the murders. They are among the most recent of thousands of cases in which Iraqis affiliated with the United States have been forced into hiding, tortured or, often, killed.

I found myself thinking of this husband and wife last week, as World Refugee Day passed, and struggling with a terrible contradiction. The United States is the world's most generous contributor to refugee relief, and we have always taken the lead on resettling refugees. Yet our country has done the bare minimum to help these Iraqis facing death and exile. Instead of clearing the way for their resettlement, we have blocked their path to safety with bureaucratic barriers and political hurdles.

President Bush should look to another Republican president, Gerald Ford, as an example of executive leadership in addressing refugee crises. In 1975 President Ford asked me to direct an interagency task force charged with resettling Indochinese refugees in the United States. Between May 1 and Dec. 20, 1975, we evacuated and resettled more than 131,000 Vietnamese who were at risk of persecution.

We rescued these people in the face of fierce political opposition. Initially, for example, California Gov. Jerry Brown announced that he wanted no refugees in his state. We overcame his reluctance and all other obstacles because the president had committed to doing everything possible to save the lives of the Vietnamese who had stood beside us. Ford persuaded Republicans and Democrats in Congress to appropriate emergency funds, and he visited refugees awaiting resettlement at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas. American families, churches and synagogues responded to the president's leadership with offers to sponsor refugees in need. At staging grounds in the South Pacific, our immigration officers worked 14-hour days.

Why is there no similar sense of urgency for the 4.2 million Iraqis displaced and in danger? President Bush himself has yet to speak of the crisis. Although members of his administration claim to have made Iraqi refugees a top priority, admission numbers tell a different story. Only one Iraqi refugee made it through our process to safety in the United States in May, and only one made it the month before. The United States has committed to reviewing 7,000 cases and admitting 3,000 refugees by the end of this fiscal year, in September. That is as many as our team processed in a single day back in 1975.

What has happened to our leadership on this issue?

The administration and Congress cannot waste any more time. Their lack of political will has cost too many people their lives. A bill introduced last week by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, would begin this process by swiftly providing increased resettlement options and visas for those at risk because of their association with the United States. The president also should direct that 20,000 unallocated refugee visas from this year be used for Iraqis. Finally, we must increase aid to countries in the Middle East that combined are hosting 2 million Iraqis; this would help ensure that the refugees can stay and that the host countries remain willing to keep their doors open.

Administration officials say that the best solution to the Iraqi refugee crisis is a stable homeland to which refugees can return. No one wants that solution more than the refugees themselves, but conditions in Iraq are not heading in that direction. The humanitarian crisis must not become a pawn in political pronouncements about the state of our efforts in Iraq. This was true with respect to our rescue of Vietnamese refugees, and it is true now. No matter your view of the war, welcoming the persecuted and standing by our friends is the right thing to do.

The writer was director of the Interagency Task Force for Indochinese Refugee Resettlement in the Ford administration and was assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration from 1997 to 2001.

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