Time to Acknowledge Iraqi Realities
The refugee crisis in Iraq did not happen overnight. After Coalition forces achieved victory in Iraq in April 2003, it appeared that fears of millions of Iraqis fleeing the country were unfounded. In the first two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, 300,000 refugees actually returned to Iraq. Since then, however, the exodus has been enormous. Today, more than 15% of Iraqis have fled their homes.
The persistently high US expectations of progress toward greater democracy, tolerance, prosperity and freedom make the process of acknowledging the Iraqi realities difficult. But time is short. The northern provinces of Iraq and its bordering countries face tremendous destabilizing consequences of the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since 1948.
Christians Among Most Vulnerable Groups
The formerly secular society was one of the first casualties of the new religious fanaticism in Iraq. As recently published studies show, minority groups such as Christians, Sabean-Mandeans or Yezidi are among the most vulnerable groups of refugees.
Christian refugees in Damascus have reported the atrocities. They showed me threatening letters they had received in Iraq and reported how fanatics had forced their way into homes. Christians in Iraq today frequently face an ultimatum: either convert to Islam (giving their daughters to Mujahideen fighters as “proof” that the conversion is serious) or leave their homes immediately. In Istanbul, a priest of the Chaldean church recounted the final wave of violence against the few remaining Christians in the Baghdad neighborhood of al-Dora, where he was serving in 2006. Today al-Dora and many parts of the country have lost their Christian populations, and 2000 years of Christian presence in Iraq is coming to an end.
Mobilize Resources for Humanitarian Assistance
In May 2007, the UNHCR called for an International Conference on Addressing the Humanitarian Needs of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons Inside Iraq and in Neighbouring Countries in order to rise awareness of the international community. Since then, many countries have responded, and the UNHCR budget has doubled. President Bush has requested $160 million from Congress in 2008 to provide basic health services and education for Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, and $80 million to provide emergency relief supplies, health care, and water and sanitation infrastructure to people displaced in Iraq.
Organizing humanitarian assistance is the order of the day, but these are just the first steps. A more comprehensive approach is needed.
Provide Better Prospects for Refugees
The official US position stresses that the refugee crisis can only be solved when there is a secure and stable Iraq.
These may be the right words for a domestic audience, but the refugees in border countries need possibilities now. They are barred from work and running short on funds. Their host countries’ budget shortages and security concerns must also be addressed immediately, particularly the situation in Syria, which so far has had the most refugee-friendly policy. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, who have kept their borders closed, should also be asked to contribute financial help to finding a solution.
Cooperation with the Syrian government will not be easy, given the country’s destructive foreign policy record. On the other hand, the Syrian government is not monolithic, and some factions are trying to open up the country. Enhanced collaboration on refugees could help these factions prove that cooperation with the West pays off. Perhaps this would spill over to security issues, too.
Resettle the Most Vulnerable Refugees
For the Christian refugees, as for other minority groups, there will be no return to Iraq in the foreseeable future. Even if the level of violence is reduced, there is no evidence that a secular society which provides protection for religious minorities will result. These most vulnerable refugees need shelter in the West, and immigration quotas for refugees must be established. Quotas are also important because for refugees, they signify hope in an almost desperate situation and thus help to stabilize the situation in the border countries.
So far UNHCR has referred 14,934 of the most vulnerable Iraqi refugees for consideration for resettlement (75% of its target of 20,000) and 14 countries are ready to participate in the program. By the end of September 2007, however, only some 1,800 Iraqis had departed.
The processing time should be sped up, but that’s not the only factor. The West must prepare to accept more of the most vulnerable Iraqi refugees, whether through immigration quotas or through increased recognition. More countries must participate if this crisis is to be solved.
Jan Bittner works in the Policy Planning Staff of the CDU/CSU Parliamentary Group. He is Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to the Chairman of the Parliamentary Group. In October 2007 he participated in a field trip to Syria, Jordan and Turkey organized by the German Pontifical Mission Society (missio Aachen).
This is the second installment of a two-part series from Jan Bittner on the refugee crisis in the Middle East. The first installment discussed the scope of the problem and why it is becoming unmanageable.
Related Materials from the Atlantic Community
- Jan Bittner on Iraqi Refugees: The West Overlooks a Major Crisis
- Reidar Visser says Now Is the Worst Possible Time to leave Basra
- Experts say Europe Should Help Iraq, But Not Follow US Lead
- Full US Troop Withdrawal by 2013? No Promises.