“I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude.”
– President George W. Bush, Jan. 14, 2007
“We’re not seeing internally displaced persons at the rate which causes us alarm.”
– Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, spokesman for the U.S. command, told reporters in Baghdad April 27, 2006
Whether people were for or against the invasion and occupation of Iraq, few can argue that the current desperate humanitarian situation is not the direct result of U.S. actions.
Since the 2003 invasion, Iraqis have faced a seemingly unending series of tragedies. From the “shock and awe” of our initial bombing campaign and the deadly counterinsurgency raids in areas like Fallujah to the ceaseless and cyclical spasms of sectarian violence, terror and death are daily realities for the Iraqi people.
According to the United Nations Development Program, without access to jobs, one-third of Iraqis now live in poverty. The agency says basic needs such as electricity, water, food and sanitation are now intermittent at best. Hospitals and schools are understaffed and lack basic medical supplies. While U.S. casualties and losses are lamented in detail, no one knows exactly how many Iraqis have been killed or injured so far. Iraq Body Count, whose conservative method is to collect death tolls from media accounts, has tallied nearly 80,000 Iraqi deaths from violence.
One consequence of these realities is the largely invisible catastrophe of the Iraq refugee crisis. Only in the last few months – in our four-year-old war – have citizens and politicians begun to look at the escalating humanitarian crisis and its accompanying surge in refugees. While the Bush administration continues to belittle the problem, legislators from both parties have finally begun to take notice and action.
Yet the crisis is already in full swing. According to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, already 2.2 million Iraqis have fled their country to escape the unrelenting violence and deprivation. Another 2 million have fled their homes and are now “internally displaced people” in their own country. Many of these people have been forced to move around multiple times to flee the continuing violence.
While our country has agonized over the state of Britney Spears’ waistline and lip-syncing technique, our “Axis of Evil” enemy Syria has quietly accepted 1.5 million Iraq refugees, according to the latest U.N. figures. And this one open door is also about to close, as the strain of the newcomers has created hardships for the already poor country. Today, new visa restrictions have virtually eliminated Syria as a refuge for Iraqis.
For those who have escaped, death may not be a daily threat, but hardships remain. Syria and Jordan – the two biggest recipients of Iraqis – do not allow refugees to work legally. Housing is scarce in Syria and food costs are rising. In 2006, Syria, with 19 million people and a per-capita GDP of $4,400, took in approximately 2,000 refugees a day. The United States, with 300 million people and a per-capita GDP of $44,000, took in 70 – in all of 2006.
What is the U.S. role and responsibility in this growing crisis? After our last protracted disaster of a military intervention – Vietnam – and a concerted outcry around the world, the U.S. reluctantly offered refuge and asylum to a total of 700,000 refugees between 1975 and 2002.
Momentum is growing for the U.S. to take on a greater role in addressing the Iraqi refugee situation. Legislation is moving forward to offer asylum to Iraqis who worked directly for the U.S. But such measures do nothing to help the thousands of Iraqis who did nothing more than be in the wrong country during the wrong war.
But we can and must do something about it, in small ways and large. Our cover story illustrates how many people in the Puget Sound are helping to mitigate the problem. Is it time to follow their lead?