“One of the burdens of those who would be world leaders and the responsibility of those who make war is to deal with the consequences of their decisions. Innocent victims of war and civil strife are too often the invisible and forgotten casualties. We need to take an important step to correct this abdication of leadership by uniting in our responsibility to Iraqi refugees, wherever they may be,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told attendees during his keynote address yesterday at a Center for American Progress conference entitled “Iraq’s Displacement Crisis and the International Response.”
The event, hosted by CAP President and CEO John Podesta and Heinrich Boell Foundation North America Director Helga Flores Trejo, brought together experts to discuss how the United States, Europe, the neighboring counties, and the international community can better address the growing number of displaced Iraqis, including those who have served critical roles for the United States in Iraq as translators and guides. And as Blumenauer pointed out, we must also work at understanding why some Iraqis are attempting to return home and what they are returning home to.
Podesta echoed Blumenauer’s message about U.S. leadership saying, “The United States has had a major hand in creating the dire conditions of these displaced Iraqis and as such faces a profound moral and strategic call to play a central role in ameliorating the conditions of these refugees. The magnitude of this crisis is too large for any one country to deal with alone. But by taking bold action first, we might acknowledge our responsibility and role in the conflict and inspire other countries to follow our example and open their doors. This will be a key step in ensuring regional security and beginning to rebuild good will in the Middle East. Failure to act will heighten the pressure-cooker environment and cast doubt over the reconciliation process in Iraq.”
Helga Flores Trejo added to this statement saying, “The Iraq displacement crisis is not only affecting the region but Europe as well. So the task is to organize an international response to this challenge. The panelists of yesterday’s conference provided very helpful recommendations on how to improve the daily living conditions of Iraqi refugees and how to create better conditions for their return.”
Many countries have stepped up in recent years to assist Iraqi refugees; Sweden, for example, has accepted almost 20,000 Iraqis into its borders this year alone. Yet the United States has admitted an almost negligible number of displaced persons in recent years. According to Blumenauer, the United States accepted only 198 Iraqi refugees in 2005, and 202 in 2006. This year, the target was originally set at 25,000, but later dropped to 7,000. By the end of the year, it is expected that only 1800 refugees will have actually resettled in the United States.
“We need to get real about circumstances in this region we helped foster,” said Blumenauer. “These are people who we’ve relied upon to translate for us and guide us in the country, and now we won’t let them in?” He emphasized that the United States must take a stronger role in mitigating the refugee crisis by expanding the number of refugees that it allows to enter the country. It should also ensure that in-country processing in Iraq and other countries is actually available. The U.S. government should work with the Iraqi government to re-examine priorities on assistance and resettlement. Once a framework is in place, an appropriations commitment should be made so that money is available for admitting Iraqis and helping them in the region. “The money will be the true test of our commitment,” Blumenauer stressed.
Rep. Blumenauer identified the Responsibility to Iraqi Refugees Act of 2007 (H.R. 2265) as a key step toward making these commitments. The legislation would provide special immigration status and assistance to more Iraqi refugees and establish a Special Coordinator for Iraqi Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) introduced a similar bill, which Blumenauer said he expected to pass that afternoon. And parts of Blumenauer’s bill are expected to pass through Congress next week as part of the National Defense Authorization Act conference report.
Panelists at the event also offered in-depth insights on the current challenge, examined the moral and security implications of the crisis, shared strategies, and identified programming and policy options. Panelists agreed that first and foremost, the daily living conditions of the refugees have to be improved. Education and health services must be provided to these people in the various host countries, and their unclear legal status has to be resolved.
The U.S. government and the European states must also be much more active in two dimensions: First, Europe and the United States have to provide much more international financial assistance to the affected countries in the region. Second, they have to develop a much more generous strategy for resettlement of victims of persecutions.
Returning refugees also create a security challenge inside Iraq. As Anita Sharma explained, “The recent flow of Iraqis home is a promising sign, but there may be other factors than improved security. Interviews with Iraqi refugees seem to suggest that financial incentives by the Iraqi government combined by free bus and plane rides played a role. Other said they had no alternative because their money was running out, visas had expired, or living conditions were poor. However, until security in Iraq improves, critical attention must be paid to the remaining options: improved conditions inside Iraq, temporary placement in a host country, or resettlement in a third country.”
The conditions of this process must be adequate. Otherwise, these refugees will contribute to the increasing numbers of internally displaced people. The United Nations and the Iraqi government recently launched an emergency plan to assist refugees who are returning home, with the government of Iraq’s pledge to allocate $110 million for returning families, but groups such as Refugees International are concerned that there has been no adequate long-term planning for those returning to Iraq and warn that those returning home might find themselves once again displaced.
Yet the news is not all bad. As Podesta commented, “The status quo is untenable and dangerous, but the good news is that momentum for reform is mounting. A growing group of advocacy, humanitarian, and religious groups are calling attention to the crisis. A bipartisan coalition is coming together in Congress to force action. And as this conference shows there is commitment toward working with our international partners in Europe and the United Nations.”
Blumenauer agreed, saying that he was “more optimistic than I’ve been” and thought that the refugee issue was “something we might get right.” Blumenauer spoke of several people in his home state of Oregon he called “heroes,” such as high school students and returning National Guardsmen who were working seriously on this. Lincoln High School actually worked with the Oregon National Guard to bring one of their Iraqi translators to Oregon. Blumenauer also thought the media had been “terrific” in giving attention to the issue, but faulted the presidential candidates for not making the displacement crisis a priority. He urged the audience to maintain focus and pressure on this issue and help “inject” the issue into the current presidential debates so it could gain more exposure.
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