Confronting the Iraq Refugee Crisis

By Ken Bacon, President, Refugees International

Today nearly five million Iraqis–20% of the population–are displaced. About half of them have fled the country and live as refugees throughout the Middle East, while the rest are displaced within Iraq. Most fled their homes because they felt unsafe; those who worked for the U.S. as translators or drivers fled after they were attacked as collaborators. Most refugees and internally displaced lack access to employment, education and medical care; they are facing shortages of food and money.

This is a humanitarian crisis first, but it is also becoming a security problem.
Refugees International recently issued a report that found that internally displaced Iraqis were turning increasingly to militia groups, not the government, for support. “As a result of the vacuum created by the failure of both the Iraqi Government and the international community to act in a timely and adequate manner, non-state actors play a major role in providing assistance to vulnerable Iraqis,” the report, Uprooted and Unstable, said. “Through a ‘Hezbollah-like’ scheme, the Shiite Sadrist movement has established itself as the main service provider in the country.”

Militias, not the government, are winning the loyalty of aid recipients. This poses an obvious threat to what the U.S. most wants in Iraq–a stable, peaceful country run by a publicly supported government under the rule of law.

Yet the U.S. seems strangely casual about the impact of massive displacement in and from Iraq. President Bush has never mentioned the plight of displaced Iraqis, and other White House officials act as though the problem doesn’t exist. The State Department’s June 11 Iraq Weekly Status Report barely mentions Iraqi displacement.

The State Department is far from tone deaf to the plight of displaced Iraqis, particularly those who have worked for the United States. Secretary Rice has appointed an ambassador, James B. Foley, as Senior Coordinator for Iraqi Refugee Issues. At a press conference earlier this month, Foley said that “we believe that we have special obligations to Iraqis who have been employed by the United States or have been closely associated with U.S. efforts in Iraq.” Yet most of the pressure to help these so-called Iraqi allies has come from Congress, not the administration.

The United States has vowed to allow 12,000 Iraqis to resettle in the U.S. this year, but eight months into the fiscal year, it has resettled only 4,742. Reaching the goal is still possible, if everything goes right.

What’s more, the United States will spend more than $200 million this year to help displaced Iraqis. Unfortunately, that is just a drop in the bucket compared to what it costs surrounding countries to host Iraqi refugees. Jordan says it is laying out about $1 billion a year to accommodate about 500,000 Iraqis, and Syria, which hosts about l.5 million, says the cost is several billion dollars a year.

The surge has reduced violence in Iraq, but not enough to enable safe return of displaced Iraqis. Until it does, the United States needs to pay more attention to meeting the needs of nearly five million displaced Iraqis whose loyalty will be won by those who help them.