Putting it in Perspective: The Iraqi Refugee Crisis
Posted by Ilanit Sisso on Tue, Jan 17, 2012 at 14:45 pm
It is hard to believe that the war in Iraq has been going on for almost nine years. When President Obama announced that we would pull out of Iraq by the end of 2011, I felt relieved knowing that American troops would be able to return home. While it’s easy to focus on the excitement of having our soldiers back, I later realized we should also take note of what we are leaving behind. Some important questions have been left unanswered: What will happen to the millions of Iraqis that were displaced by the war? What will happen to the Iraqis who worked with the US and are now threatened and harassed? What will happen to the religious and sexual minorities who remain in Iraq?
Since 2007, the United States has resettled over 60,000 Iraqi refugees. In addition, the U.S. has increased the number of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) that are issued each year. Section 1059 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2006 authorized the issuance of up to 50 SIVs annually to Iraqi and Afghan translators and interpreters working for the U.S. military. Largely through the efforts of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, who recognized that this number was far too low, Section 1244 of the 2008 NDAA authorized the issuance of up to 5,000 SIVs annually through fiscal year 2012 to Iraqi nationals who have worked for or on behalf of the US Government in Iraq. The Act opened the SIV process to Iraqi employees and contractors who have been employed by or on behalf of the U.S. Government in Iraq for a period of one year or more. It specifically added the requirement that the individual “must have experienced or are experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of that employment.”
However, this program has not been utilized to the fullest extent possible, leaving many vulnerable Iraqis out in the cold. According to the State Department’s statistics, as of March 31, 2011, four years after the expansion of the SIV program, only 3,151 visas have been issued out of a possible 25,000. For Fiscal Year 2011, only 154 visas had been issued by March 31, 2011, out of the 5,000 authorized. Meanwhile, individuals eligible for this visa program continue to face grave threats as a result of their service to the United States. Senator Leahy and six other Senators have recently sent an inquiry to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in order to determine why these numbers are so low and what more can be done to help those who risked their lives to help U.S. troops.
In addition to improving the SIV program, the United States should not forget the millions Iraqis who were displaced by the war and still remain in the region without a place they can call home. As a result of the war, millions of families fled Iraq. According to the New York Times, the Iraq war caused the largest exodus since the mass migration that followed the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Currently, over four million Iraqis are believed to be displaced: about 2.3 million of those have found refuge in neighboring countries such as Syria and Jordan, and the rest remain in Iraq. Ironically, those who fled to neighboring countries to escape violence and persecution in their home country continue to face hardships in their new countries. Most don’t have legal status or employment authorization, live in dire conditions, and run the risk of detention or deportation.
Those who choose to return to Iraq face many challenges such as lack of security and livelihood prospects, as many of them lost their homes. While refugees may eventually be able to have their lives “back to normal” in the future, the current situation of ongoing violence and lack of job opportunities makes it difficult to do so. A July 2011 report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction concludes that “Iraq remains an extraordinarily dangerous place to work,” and that it is “less safe… than months ago.”
The process set in place by the US to help these individuals, while invaluable, has been criticized by advocates for its inefficiencies. Those 60,000 Iraqi refugees who have been resettled in the U.S. are extremely lucky, but many remain disconnected from family still in Iraq: processing backlogs and delays in completing security checks have left many families in limbo. As one of the main actors in the war and as a strong international advocate for refugee protection, the U.S. has the responsibility continue to address this imminent problem in an efficient manner. While it is easier to be happy the conflict is over and that our troops are able to go home, we have an ethical responsibility to remember what and who were are leaving behind.