As the United States prepares for a reduction in our military forces in Iraq, we cannot abandon the people whose lives have been irrevocably changed by the seven-year American occupation. As President Obama has emphasized, the United States has a moral responsibility to the Iraqi people. Such were the themes of the recent hearing of the Helsinki Commission on Capitol Hill called "No Way Home, No Way to Escape: The Plight of Iraqi Refugees and Our Iraqi Allies."
Congressman Alcee Hastings emphasized that the current Iraqi refugee crisis is the largest displacement in the Middle East since 1948. Among many hardships faced by refugees, Hastings noted that children are particularly at risk. Some haven’t attended school in over four. They represent the country’s future, and without education, they are more vulnerable to recruitment by extremist groups, he said.
Ambassador L. Craig Johnstone of Refugees International said that in his conversations with Iraqi refugees, most named their children’s education as their top priority. Johnstone further emphasized it is largely the Iraqi middle class that is now living in squatter settlements as refugees. These refugees represent the best and the brightest of Iraqi society, and they will be able to contribute a great deal whether they return to Iraq or resettle in the United States.
"While our military may be drawing down, our concern for and our commitment to the humanitarian and the protection needs of displaced Iraqis will remain robust," said Eric Schwartz, Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration at the State Department. At $400 million, funding for Iraq represents a quarter of the State’s worldwide refugee budget. While Schwartz has urged other donor countries to increase their funding, he said that the U.S. can expect to provide the "lion’s share" of funding. Ambassador Johnstone similarly called on the United States to provide 50% of the UN appeal.
Refugees and internally displaced persons are not the only Iraqis who have been endangered by our military operations there. Between 40,000 and 120,000 Iraqis risked their lives alongside Americans as interpreters, engineers, and advisors – work that left them targets for terrorist groups. While special immigrant visas (SIVs) expedite the process through which they can resettle in the United States, the process can still take up to a year – too long for Iraqis in urgent need of escape – and is more difficult to navigate than the regular refugee program. As a result, only 2,100 of the allotted 15,000 SIVs have been claimed.
Kirk Johnson of the List Project, which assists Iraqi allies in navigating the refugee resettlement process, spoke to the urgency of the situation. There are no serious contingency plans to evacuate our Iraqi allies as the U.S. military withdraws – but there need to be, he said. There is precedent for such an evacuation: Iraqi Kurds were airlifted to Guam in 1996. Schwartz said that his bureau was not currently considering such contingency plans but would do so.
Several of the speakers drew on past American successes and failures to protect those who worked with us. Representative Jim McDermott (D-WA) spoke regretfully about the fact that we "walked away" from Koreans who had helped our soldiers, and Ambassador Johnstone – who left the Foreign Service to help our Vietnamese allies to safety – reflected that the United States didn’t plan adequately for the fall of Saigon, and we seem poised to make the same mistake in Iraq.
As Ambassador Johnstone reflected, "The important message, I think, for us today, is as we disengage from this conflict, we cannot disengage from our humanitarian obligations." America must live up to our values as a nation that protects its friends. Although the U.S. relationship with Iraq is changing, our responsibilities to the Iraqi people are ongoing.