Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Other Surge: Iraqi refugees

While Washington debates the surge of troops to Iraq, it has only recently begun to acknowledge the surge in refugees leaving Iraq. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 50,000 per month are fleeing Iraq and that their numbers in neighboring countries may soon reach two million. Yet last year the U.S. admitted only 202 Iraqi refugees, and has done next to nothing since the war began to assist neighboring countries to bear the refugee burden. Condoleezza Rice unveiled a new plan on Wednesday to resettle 7,000 Iraqi refugees. After three years of ignoring the refugee fallout from the war, this is a welcome first step. But will it be enough to convince Syria and Jordan to keep doors open?

While America has a special obligation to rescue Iraqis who have been specifically persecuted because they helped U.S. troops or Americans working in Iraq, it is central to U.S. interests to address the destabilizing effects and humanitarian needs in the region of a much larger group of refugees -- Sunnis and Shiites fleeing mixed areas, members of the professional classes, religious minorities, and people perceived as Western in orientation.

This week the crisis worsened when Syria tightened residency rules for a million Iraqi refugees there, raising fears that mass deportations will begin. Jordan has started barring single men between 17 and 35 at the border and is unwilling to recognize 700,000 Iraqis living there as refugees. Neither country has received more than token assistance from the international community that might convince them to keep their doors open. International donors provided only $14 million of UNHCR's $29 million request last year for refugees in the region. The U.S. provided 27%.

First, the U.S. needs to make sure that neighboring countries have resources to provide for the refugees' basic needs. The total UNHCR request of $60 million for this year is what the U.S. spends every five hours to fight the war. The U.S. shouldn't waste precious weeks quibbling with the Europeans on their contributions. The sum is modest, part of the price of the war: Just pay it. Second, assistance should have strings attached. Jordan and Syria must keep their doors open to refugees. They must allow Iraqi children to go to school. Humanitarian aid should enable refugees to stay in the region in conditions of safety and dignity until it is safe for them to go home.

Finally, the U.S. needs to move quickly to resettle significant numbers of Iraqi refugees, particularly those who risked their lives to help Americans, who cannot go home. Resettlement not only fulfills a moral responsibility with deep roots -- Hungary, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam. It also shows the Middle East that the U.S. is committed to helping with the most difficult part of any refugee emergency -- where to put the people themselves. Resettlement ultimately shows solidarity both with the people who put their lives on the line in the U.S. war effort and with the countries who need to be convinced that they will not be left to bear the burden alone.

Mr. Frelick is the refugee policy director for Human Rights Watch.

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