Iraqi Refugee Crisis Needs U.S. Attention

The lead article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal painted a compelling picture of the plight of Iraqi interpreters, conservatively estimated at 5,000, who have worked for US armed forces or contractors in Iraq. Regrettably this number vastly understates the magnitude of the refugee crisis in the region. In hearings convened by Senator Kennedy and his Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, reputable sources estimated the number of refugees who have fled Iraq as being close to 2,000,000 people and growing.

Iraq and its neighbors face a refugee crisis of historic proportions. The plight of translators, while tragic, reflects only one part of the story. While there is no formal registration of refugees by the UN or other international bodies, we know from testimony given to the Judiciary Committee this week that the refugee population includes many others associated with the US effort as well as relatives of Iraqi Americans, Christian and other religious minorities, intellectuals, professionals and others employed by US forces, such as drivers, logisticians, cleaners and cooks. Much of the cultural and intellectual capital of Iraq has fled, and its rich artistic and intellectual history is at risk of being lost.

We have an opportunity and a limited window to protect and preserve the human capital of the country, and the US has a humanitarian tradition and the mechanisms for doing so--the US refugee programs. In the hearings on Tuesday Ellen Sauerbrey, the Assistant Secretary Secretary of State for the Bureau for Refugees Population and Migration, said that the plight of Iraqi refugees was the first priority of the Bureau. For many refugees time is limited and we are hopeful that this commitment will be reflected in timely, comprehensive and adequately funded programs of humanitarian assistance, protection and resettlement.

The United Stated has an opportunity to do the right thing and to do it well. We should develop strong and coherent humanitarian program for Iraqi refugees that includes resettlement in the US or other countries for those who need it. The alternative is to ignore the problem, foster regional instability and compound the harm that has been inflicted on Iraqis who have supported the US efforts. Many of the refugees have paid a great price for their support of the war. Many have experienced and witnessed atrocities, and have lost family members, homes and livelihood. We should not ignore them.

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