Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"Iraq is now a democracy, there is no reason to flee"

Yesterday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the "Plight of Iraqi Refugees" was really quite unusual in that it actually had some teeth; the senators refused to sugar-coat anything, getting to the heart of the matter in each of their questions, and the witnesses responded in kind.

As might be expected the most fascinating testimonies came from two Iraqis who had worked with coalition forces in Iraq and have been granted asylum in the U.S. They each go into detail describing the threats they faced on a daily basis. Just one example from "John" whose identity was concealed for security purposes:
"I went to work delivering water to the Americans along with my son. At about 9 o'clock that mooring, we saw what appeared to be a road blockade ahead. Before we could realize what was happening, my son and I were dragged out of the cab of our truck. We were positioned face down on the side of the road by a group of terrorists."
I could not make out the identity of these men but they were heavily armed and were wearing green bandanas decorated with the three-stars from the Iraqi flag. They kept saying to me, "Don't work with the Americans," and one of them struck me in the face with the butt of his gun permanently damaging jaw. Another man twisted my son's arm so severely that he broke it. They knew my name and instructed me that this was a warning and that I would be killed if I continued assisting the Americans. After they made their threat they departed, leaving us bloodied on the side of the road. [full testimony]"
And the remarkable thing is, after the attack, John went on delivering water for the Americans. Thousands of Iraqis like John are risking their lives to help coalition forces and hundreds of thousands of others are threatened due to the conditions the U.S. has created in Iraq, so you would think that the least the U.S. can do is accept Iraq refugees. However, as Ellen Sauerbrey, the Assistant Secretary of State Population, Refugees and Migration, testified, only 466 Iraqis have been granted refuge in the U.S. Meanwhile Syria has an open border policy and has accepted hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, despite their being an enormous strain on its economy and with little assistance from the international community.

Why hasn't the U.S. accepted more refugees? After all, it can be argued that the U.S. is primarily responsible for the refugee crisis. Simply put, the U.S. administration has chosen to deny that there is such an ongoing crisis. This is what the U.S. government told Lisa Ramaci-Vincent when she tried to get an Iraq translator into America; "Iraq is now a democracy, there is no reason to flee." The administration believes, and perhaps rightly so, that acknowledging the refugee crisis would be tantamount to admitting failure in Iraq. Sean Garcia of Refugees International noted in his own conversations with State Dept. officials that:
many are reluctant to say, 'These are refugee flows, these are people fleeing the chaos.' Rather, they just acknowledge that people are leaving Iraq, but claim that they don’t know why.
Because Iraq is now a democracy, there is no reason to flee.

To read the testimonies of each witness including a very interesting statement on the international effort to address the crisis from Michel Gabaudan, Regional the Representative for the U.S. and Caribbean Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees go here.

All in all, I think Ken Bacon, the President of Refugees International sums it up pretty well: "While we don’t yet know how to stabilize Iraq, we do know how to protect and support refugees. We must start now."

Couple more links
* NPR has also recently began highlighting the refugee crisis with an interview with Sen. Kennedy, and a story on an Iraqi translator trying to leave the U.S.

* "As refugees flee Iraq, few gain sanctuary in U.S." in The International Herald Tribune

* "
Iraq's Hidden Refugee Crisis: An Interview with Sean Garcia" conducted by the Education for Peace in Iraq Center

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