Thursday, March 22, 2007

Iraq: The Human Cost of War

Things have been very busy around the office here at EPIC lately. We've been working to set up an action site to let our members tell Congress about the extent of the humanitarian crisis in and around Iraq. So it was a nice change of pace to head over to Georgetown University's Iraq Remembrance Week to see a panel event titled "Iraq: The Human Cost of War" yesterday morning.

In the course of their presentations and the subsequent Q & A session, panelists Roberta Cohen of Brookings, Wendy Young of UNHCR, documentarian Adam Shapiro, and Larry Bartlett of the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration did not disappoint. There was some talk of posting a transcript of the event to Georgetown's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies Program website, but until that gets posted, here is an overview of the information covered:

Latest estimates put the total number of IPDs and refugees at 3.9 million, with 700,000-800,000 people displaced in the last year. These individuals, which include not only Iraqi nationals but also 45,000 non-Iraqis, are fleeing to refugee camps in soccer stadiums and even cemeteries. The 3.9-million figure does not factor in the hundreds of thousand of additional Iraqis in "pre-displacement"--a state in which they are afraid to go to work and/or afraid to sleep in their own homes at night.

The Middle East has not seen such a large scale displacement crisis since 1948.

With half the displaced population living on less than 1$US a day, the State Department is seeking more funds to add to the efforts of UNHCR and other organizations helping to mitigate the humanitarian crisis. Notably, Larry Bartlett mentioned that the US obligations to the crisis are not solely financial. He also explained that, we must continue to honor America's diplomatic obligations to displaced Iraqis by working with neighboring states to create safe spaces for those forced from their homes. Roberta Cohen suggested that they US needs to increase aid to Jordan and Syria as their economies and infrastructure strain under the influx of refugees. Currently in Jordan, Iraqi refugees are not issued work permits, and this has brought about a rise in child labor and prostitution among the refugees.

The question of resettlement also came up. Larry Bartlett and his colleagues at the State Department must be given credit for permitting the US resettlement of 7,000 Iraqis. UNHCR is hoping to increase this number significantly, as well as increasing resettlement rates in other countries. Some have pointed to the expeditious resettlement of 20,000 Iraqis in the US following a failed uprising against Saddam Hussein in the early 1990's as a possible model for the current situation. Yet this is complicated by the "material support bars" of the PATRIOT and Real ID Acts that exclude anyone who has given money to armed groups from entry to the United States. Adam Shapiro pointed out that in Iraq, many families are forced to pay armed groups just to recover the bodies of their dead loved ones. Thus, few in Iraq have been lucky enough to not be forced to take actions that the US brands as "terrorism." Larry Bartlett said that he and his colleagues at State will "work strenuously to make sure this hurdle is overcome."

Under a civil-war containment scenario (in which US troops redeploy to seal off Iraq's borders to prevent the spread of violence to neighboring states), dubbed "Plan B," camps would spring up inside Iraq's borders for those fleeing civil war, yet unable to escape Iraq due to the border closures. These camps would have to be protected by soldiers, and this poses several problems. First, according to Larry Bartlett, both the soldiers and the displaced persons at the camps would become easy targets for those seeking to propagate the violence in Iraq. The second problem, noted Roberta Cohen, is that the camps would become de facto "detention centers" for displaced persons. By closing off Iraq's borders, "Plan B" would both violate Iraqi rights to freedom of movement and deny Iraqis the chance to seek asylum in neighboring states. Lastly, Wendy Young pointed to the region's problematic and painful history of refugee camps, as well as the sense of dependency and disenfranchisement that these camps generate.

Finally, Wendy Young mentioned an upcoming UNHCR-hosted conference that will address the international community's response to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. Invitations to this ministerial-level conference have been extended to 192 member states as well as over 60 NGOs. With Refugees International's new report that says Iraqis forced from their homes are not receiving adequate humanitarian assistance, and the NYT reporting this morning that the war has resulted in "the world's fastest-growing populations of refugees and internally displaced peoples," it is time for the Bush Administration to act. We here at EPIC are not alone in hoping that Secretary Rice will make all efforts to attend the UNHCR meeting in April and, as Roberta Cohen put it, "acknowledge the United States' specific responsibility for this humanitarian crisis."

Congress needs to act as well. And you can help to make that happen by going here.

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