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Iraqi Refugee Crisis: an American Crisis of Morality & Security

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I met former UN Weapons Inspector and marine Scott Ritter four years ago, as a college freshman. It was two or three months before the invasion of Iraq, and I was naive enough to think that the Bush administration hadn't already made its mind up. On campus, I had started a discussion group to help other students better understand all the information swirling around in the news. Ritter had come to town to answer questions -- mostly about Iraq's weapons capabilities, which he said were nil. But he also said, "I hope I'm wrong and they're right."

But one thing really stuck out in my mind then, and now. He said that in our culture, if you live in Maryland but get a job in Florida, you pick up and move. Not so for Iraqis, where moving is viewed through a tribal lens and is generally not accepted. Ritter told me that the matter could be a factor in the invasion.

Now, well into the tumultuous occupation, too many Iraqis have no other choice but to leave their homes. This morning's Washington Post carries a front page story complete with a map/graph of the displaced persons throughout Iraq and the region. Reporter Sudarsan Raghavan tells the story of men and women, young and old whose lives depended on fleeing.

One wishes she was a bird so she could fly back to her home. A young college students cries as she leaves her friends. They try to recreate their old lives in their new homes with food and music. I think about what Ritter said, and am sure that we would not react much differently if we were put in this situation.

And for that, and the fact that we are responsible for this, is why it's important we help them.

Last week, my friend Adam Goodheart and I published an op-ed in USA Today, discussing America's reaction to the Iraqis' plight and that of the Vietnamese in 1975. As Saigon fell, "hundreds of thousands of our loyal allies faced imprisonment and death," and President Gerald Ford moved quickly to coordinate an operation with aid agencies. Together, they relocated about 130,000 Vietnamese refugees to American sponsors in all 50 states. Within eight months. At a cost of $405 million. (Now, that's efficiency.)

To tell today's story of Iraqi refugees by the numbers, as the New York Times reported last month, is much less heartening. Thousands of Iraqis leave every day for places like Jordan, Syria, Iran, Egypt, and Lebanon. They flow not to refugee camps prepared for the influx, but to urban centers in massive numbers. Jordan's 700,000 Iraqi refugees now account for more than 10 percent of their population. The Jordanians no longer allow Iraqi families to enter with their suitcases or, oftentimes, their young men.

But it seems as though it is not only in our moral interests to act, but in our security interests as well. In the November, 2006 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, terrorism and Middle East experts Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack wrote that refugee communities can become "deeply radicalized" and a breeding ground for more violence.

In fact, militia leaders sometimes become the leaders of the refugee community, offering protection, imposing their will on any rivals, and recruiting new fighters from among the camp's many traumatized, jobless young men. Tribal elders and other leaders who might oppose violence may find themselves enfeebled by both the trauma of flight and the loss of their traditional basis of power (typically, control of land)....

... [R]efugees, whether in camps or not, can also corrode state power from the inside, fomenting the radicalization of domestic populations and encouraging rebellion against host governments. The burden of caring for hundreds of thousands of refugees is heavy, straining government administrative capacity and possibly eroding public support for regimes shown to be weak, unresponsive, or callous. And the sudden presence of armed fighters with revolutionary aspirations can lead disaffected local clans or coreligionists to ally with the refugees against their own government, especially when an influx of one ethnic or religious group upsets a delicate demographic balance, as would likely be the case in some of Iraq's neighbors.

Considering this, the United States should definitely take a role. But at the start of 2007, only 466 Iraqi refugees had been allowed in the United States -- and nearly all of them had applied before the 2003 invasion. An act of Congress allows 50 government-employed translators from Iraq and Afghanistan to immigrate each year. And as far as those still in the region, Adam and I wrote in USA Today that,

Compared with occupation costs of about $300 million per day, the money [Assistant Secretary of State Ellen] Sauerbrey spoke of allotting to the refugee crisis seems laughable. She boasted that in 2006, the U.S. provided $400,000 to support U.N. refugee resettlement efforts, a figure it proposes to increase to $500,000 this year. (If you divide $500,000 by the 3.4 million Iraqi refugees, you get a commitment of about 14 cents per refugee.)

In the Washington Post piece, Raghavan quotes the U.N. refugee agency representative for Iraq as saying the United States and other Western nations' pitiful involvement is "probably political," and that, "The Iraq story has to be a success story." But, as it has in the past, their good political posturing will lead to real world disaster.

In 1975, political liabilities were cast aside, as Ford relocated refugees from a war most Americans disdained -- and during an economic recession, no less. While some governors privately called him to offer their help, Quang X. Pham recently pointed out how others chastised him in the media.

But Ford was looking at the big picture as President Bush should do now (and something Bush likes to accuse war critics of). As well, Democrats must become more vocal. Senator Ted Kennedy has spoken out and held hearings, but in all their talk about Iraq, it is rare for a Democratic presidential candidate to raise the profile of this crisis.

It's tough to say where we go from here. Today's leaders could follow the example of Gerald Ford by matching up Iraqi refugees with American sponsors and paying for the security checks, transportation, and aid necessary to relocate them stateside. Or they could start abroad by providing substantial aid (more than 14 cents per refugee), improving their conditions, and thus making them less susceptible to extremism.

Or maybe we're wrong and they're right, and we should trust those in power to know what's best in handling the refugee crisis in the region (read: not handling it at all). But I swear, I've heard that somewhere before.