Roving thoughts and provocations

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Iraq’s Ignored Victims

B. Heger/UNHCR
Children playing in a neighborhood populated mostly by Iraqi refugees, Damascus, Syria, August 2007

President Obama announced on August 31 that the main force of US troops has left Iraq, leaving about 50,000 Americans to help maintain the peace and support the Iraqi army and police. This was good news for American servicemen, their families, and the nation. But this departure should not be accompanied by a withdrawal of our support for the Iraqi people, particularly the millions of Iraqis who have fled their homes and who continue to live in limbo both inside Iraq and in other countries. During a recent mission to observe the situation of these displaced Iraqis, this reality became painfully clear to me.

The humanitarian consequences of this seven-year war on Iraqi civilians are too often unreported. Since 2003, 2.5 million Iraqis have fled the country, mainly to Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, while another two million have been dislocated inside Iraq, many of whom are now living in makeshift camps on the outskirts of Baghdad and other cities. Neighboring countries have by and large been willing to allow in fleeing Iraqis, though often without offering them any legal status; and this influx has created severe strains on their own populations and resources. To be fair, the international community, led by the United States, has provided basic assistance to these Iraqis and a small number have been resettled in third countries, including in the US and Europe, but a long-term solution to this mass displacement has been elusive.

Of the Iraqi refugees I visited in Jordan, for example, many lived in small apartments already occupied by one or more families, with their savings almost depleted, with no legal residency, and with little hope for long-term employment in the host country. Some families have been forced to send their children to work as domestic help during the day, keeping them out of school and leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.

More and more Iraqi girls and boys have become subject to human trafficking and child prostitution. One young woman, a victim of sexual violence, told me of the pain of being ostracized by her family, who held her responsible for her having become a victim. Nearly everyone I met expressed a fear of returning to their former homes in Iraq—if in fact their homes were not already taken over by others—particularly now that the US troops are leaving.

Moreover, the international community has been reducing its support, not increasing it as it should. The United States has maintained its level of funding, but has not raised it sufficiently to meet current needs. This year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency charged with responding to the refugee crisis, says it is 25 percent short of the nearly $700 million necessary to meet projected requirements. According to a recent report, “So far, resettlement countries have admitted fewer than half the 80,000 [Iraqi] cases referred by UNHCR. The vast majority of referrals are designated for resettlement in the United States.” Some 17,000 are to be admitted to the US during 2010.

With the withdrawal of American troops, the situation could grow worse. Violence could increase and many Iraqis who until now have remained in Iraq may now be forced to flee, increasing the number of refugees in the region. The United States has yet to announce a plan for handling humanitarian challenges that could follow withdrawal. It is our moral responsibility to do so.

Iraqi Christians continue to be targets of systematic violence, especially in Mosul and Ninevah. These Christians belong to ancient communities that once grew and thrived in Iraq but now face potential disappearance there. Christians in Iraq told me of threats they had received to abandon their faith or risk death. Others described how their homes or churches had been attacked.

On August 25, at the time of the US troop withdrawal, Iraqi soldiers reportedly filled the streets of Mosul, anticipating a resurgence in sectarian violence. If there is not an increase in security in Christian neighborhoods, any chance for Christians to return to Iraq in the near future and reestablish their communities is not bright.

What should the United States and other members of the international community do to address these issues? First, they must not assume that an end to military involvement marks the beginning of a withdrawal of humanitarian support. As a moral matter, we should not claim victory in Iraq while there are millions of Iraqis who have lost their homes, have little hope of reclaiming them, and are now forced to live in extremely difficult conditions.

More important, the United States, in cooperation with the Iraqi government and the international community, must develop a postwar plan, similar to what we have done after other conflicts, to find durable solutions for Iraqi refugees and displaced persons. Such a plan would include steps to strengthen the rule of law and security within Iraq, thus enabling Iraqis, including Christians, to remain or return. If return is not possible, the plan should also include working with neighboring countries to integrate refugees into their societies or resettle them in third countries.

A first step would be to meet the UNHCR’s annual funding request, at a minimum, and accept for resettlement the number of refugees recommended by that agency during the coming years. After World War II, the Marshall Plan helped restore Europe, and after the Vietnam War, the Orderly Departure Program brought many Vietnamese to the United States and other countries. These are examples of American resourcefulness and willingness to repair, to the extent feasible, the ravages of war. Certainly, a post-withdrawal plan should be adapted to current realities, but should show the same commitment as earlier postwar efforts, leaving Iraq and its people as whole as possible.

A well-executed plan would not only meet our humanitarian obligations but would also help stabilize the region. Leaving a large number of Iraqis unsettled throughout the Middle East could create social and resource problems and grow into a larger political issue, affecting the ability of the United States to achieve other important policy goals.

In the end, we cannot abandon Iraqi refugees and displaced families. The United States and the world cannot leave behind a humanitarian crisis in the hope that it will correct itself. Such an outcome would not only fail to help people in serious need but create long-term animosity in the region. It would estrange the next generation of Iraqis, whose leadership will be needed to build a stable and peaceful nation.

Readers can sign an open letter to President Obama urging more US funding and action to help Iraq’s refugees. For a slideshow of images of Iraqis who have fled to neighboring countries, see “Picturing Iraq’s Unseen Millions.”

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick is the Archbishop Emeritus of Washington.

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