By Jim LobeInter Press Service
January 17, 2007
With some two million of its citizens having fled to other countries and another 1.7 million internally displaced, Iraq has become one of the world's biggest and fastest growing humanitarian crises for which the United States should take far more responsibility, according to human rights groups and other experts.
The administration of President George W. Bush, which is currently spending roughly 30 million dollars a day on military operations in Iraq, has earmarked only 20 million dollars for Iraqi humanitarian needs in bilateral aid for all of 2007, the administration's senior refugee official, Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey, told a Senate hearing Tuesday.
It has also granted refugee status to only 466 Iraqis since 2003, she told the Senate Judiciary Committee, which called on the administration to be far more generous both in providing aid to alleviate the refugee crisis and in offering asylum to fleeing Iraqis, particularly those who have worked for the U.S. military and occupation authorities.
"We should not repeat the tragic and immoral mistake from the Vietnam era and leave friends without a refuge and subject to violent reprisals," the committee's chairman, Patrick Leahy, told Sauerbrey, who said she considered the admission of Iraqis to the U.S. to be a "top priority" for her office.
Some 100,000 Iraqis are fleeing the country every month, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has recently appealed for 60 million dollars for 2007 to cope with the crisis. Normally, Washington would be expected to provide about 25 percent of such an appeal, but rights groups are calling on the U.S. to do much more in light of its disproportionate responsibility for the situation.
"With two million Iraqis having fled Iraq and another 100,000 fleeing every month, this is the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world," said Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International (RI). Another 40,000 to 50,000 people a month are leaving their homes for other, presumably safer parts of the country, he noted, quoting estimates by UNHCR. "The U.S. has a special obligation to help, since the violence in Iraq and the growing displacement comes in the aftermath of our invasion and occupation," he told the Senate committee. "Because of our role in the conflict, we should consider doubling (our normal) contribution for Iraqi refugees."
"The cost to the United States of helping Iraqi refugees in the region is modest, but it's the difference between life and death for hundreds of thousands," said Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch. "Washington is spending about two billion dollars per week on the war in Iraq, but has barely begun to address the human fallout from the war," he added.
The burden of the refugee flow is falling mainly on Jordan and Syria whose social welfare and education systems have been unable to absorb the influx. UNHCR estimates that some 700,000 Iraqis are currently living in Jordan and another 600,000 in Syria. "Syria and Jordan have been generous to refugees and deserve international recognition for accepting them in large numbers," Bacon said. "But the burdens of the large refugee population are an increasing strain. Real estate prices and rents are rising quickly in Damascus and Amman; schools and hospitals are crowded. Deportations are becoming more common."
Jordan has shut its border to Iraqi men between the ages of 17 and 35, as well as to a growing number of Palestinian refugees who had been living in Iraq under the protection of former President Saddam Hussein but who have been turned out of their homes since the 2003 invasion. As a result, a growing number of Palestinians, who are legally stateless and unable to enter Syria as well, have been stranded along Iraq's border with its two neighbours. Frelick pointed out that their failure to permit the refugees to enter constituted a violation of international refugee law. Neither Jordan nor Syria has signed the 1951 Refugee Convention.
For her part, Sauerbreay admitted that Washington had failed to fully anticipate the seriousness of the refugee crisis or the speed with which it has developed over the past year, particularly since the intensification of sectarian violence after the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra in February. "Due to the upsurge in sectarian violence in 2006, (the) trend of repatriation (after the 2003 invasion) reversed itself, and, at present more Iraqis are fleeing their homes to other areas of Iraq and to neighbouring countries than are returning," she said, stressing, however, that many of those currently counted as refugees in neighbouring countries have been living there since before 2003.
Tuesday's hearing featured testimony by two Iraqis who have been admitted to the U.S. and who had worked for the U.S. military during the occupation. Both testified under pseudonyms and behind a green curtain. One, a former interpreter, said he received a series of threats on his life and left at the urging of the U.S. soldiers with whom he worked first in 2004. During a brief visit home the following year, he was injured in a car bombing that he said he believed was aimed at him.
The State Department has 70,000 slots set aside for refugees to be admitted to the U.S. each year, but less than 6,000 are allocated to refugees from the Middle East and South Asia. An additional 20,000 slots, however, are "unallocated reserves". The committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter, urged Sauerbrey to immediately allocate those slots to Iraqis who are now at risk as a result of their association with the United States. "Why not use them now when there is such a crushing need?" he asked. Sauerbrey agreed in principle but stressed that financing for them must still be found. "This issue is the very top priority in my bureau," she said
More Information on Iraq's Humanitarian Crisis