: This essay originally appeared on New America Media and is part of an ongoing editorial exchange with The Nation.
Little Saigon in Orange County, Calif., and Little Havana in Miami, each built by refugees, are now thriving communities with growing political and economic clout. But they also serve as painful reminders of America’s failures in its overseas ventures. For this reason, don’t expect a Little Baghdad to appear on US soil any time soon–even as huge numbers of Iraqi refugees continue to flee their ravaged land.
The United States had, until recently, reserved only 500 spots for Iraqi refugees in 2007–though the State Department says it wants to allocate as many as 20,000 US refugee slots to Iraqis. It would like to bring more in, but blames an unwieldy UN processing system. Perhaps the real problem has more to do with politics: Accepting Iraqi refugees would be akin to America admitting defeat in its efforts to pacify Iraq and a huge setback in its fight against terrorism in the region.
Nearly 2 million Iraqi refugees currently live outside the country, and another 1.5 million are displaced within. As conditions in Iraq worsen, more are crossing borders. Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia are all seeing a rise in Iraqi refugees. Syria in particular, which shares a 450-mile border with Iraq, is bearing the brunt of the mass exodus. Syrian officials estimated more than 700,000 Iraqis of all stripes are now living inside their country.
“We’re not meeting our basic obligation to the Iraqis who’ve been imperiled because they worked for the US government,” notes Kirk W. Johnson in a recent New York Times article. Johnson, who worked for the United States Agency for International Development in Falluja in 2005, writes, “We could not have functioned without their hard work, and it’s shameful that we’ve nothing to offer them in their bleakest hour.”
Indeed, those working as interpreters for the US and British armies and for foreign journalists–not to mention those hired by US companies doing reconstruction and those working in the Green Zone–have been targeted by various insurgent groups. Their lives will be exponentially imperiled once US forces pull out.
“In Iraq there’s no love lost between American soldiers and the locals,” notes Quang X. Pham, author of A Sense of Duty, who fought in the first Persian Gulf War. “Iraqi refugees, unlike Vietnamese refugees, have no champion like President Gerald Ford, and they will find much opposition to their immigration to the United States due to fallout from 9-11 and specifically, the Patriot Act.”
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While Congress debated whether to let in Vietnamese refugees in 1975–Sen. George McGovern said it was better for “Vietnamese to stay in Vietnam,” and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) thought that “barmaids, prostitutes and criminals” should be screened out–President Ford threw his support behind the refugees.
Such an act today, from a President who still speaks of the war in Iraq as winnable, is unimaginable. How could President Bush accept Iraqi refugees when only last year he described post-invasion Iraq as a nation of “freedom” and “democracy”?
On the ground in Iraq, of course, the situation is dire. “The current exodus is the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since the displacement of Palestinians following the creation of Israel in 1948,” according to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
In a news release last week, António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, says “the longer this conflict goes on, the more difficult it becomes for the hundreds of thousands of people displaced, and the communities that are trying to help them–both inside and outside Iraq. The burden on host communities and governments in the region is enormous.”
But according Faiza Al-Arji, who fled from Baghdad to Jordan with her family recently, help is not forthcoming. She and her family keep a blog called A Family in Baghdad. “Here, in expatriation and dispersal,” she writes, “I have seen so many organizations, or heard about them. I spared no efforts to obtain some medical help for an Iraqi who was injured by shrapnel’s or burns, or to get some financial or material donations. But to no avail…All I found [were] lies and stalling.”
Al-Arji doesn’t spare her fellow well-to-do Iraqi refugees from criticism. “There are so many rich and millionaire Iraqis here, who turn their backs [on] the Iraqi poor,” she writes, “as if they do not know them, as if they do not belong to the same torn, wounded country. They meet each other in fancy restaurants and drive the most luxurious cars, but have no mercy in their hearts for their brothers.”
For the majority, life in exile is a life of poverty. The United Nations reported that women are increasingly forced to resort to prostitution. Child labor has become a scourge. It also estimated that an additional 2.7 million would be internally displaced in Iraq this year. In Syria, more than 30 percent of Iraqi children are without schooling.
During the cold war, a refugee fleeing a communist country became an automatic icon for the West. President Ronald Reagan in his farewell address talked of boat people who waved their SOS flags to US sailors–their rescuers–yelling, “Hello! Freedom man!” The story is a poignant reminder of the way the United States once symbolized freedom and sweet liberty in the eyes of the dispossessed.
That perception has been irrevocably altered in the age of Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, Homeland Security and the government-condoned torture and eroding human and immigrant rights. Few Iraqi refugees would contemplate America as an asylum country these days, and that speaks volume as to how the world views America.
Yet there is a clear moral if not geopolitical mandate for the United States to help Iraq’s refugees. In Vietnam, many of those who allied themselves with America during the war were sent to re-education camps, some were summarily executed and many stripped their properties. A far worse fate is likely for those who threw their lot with America in Iraq, and who have now quickly become victims of its latest foreign policy failure.