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Lionel Beehner Headshot

The Iraqi Refugee Mess Just Got Messier

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Where's the outrage over the Bush administration's failed Iraqi refugee policy? Administration officials promised that 7,000 Iraqis would be resettled to the United States by the end of last year. Yet only 1,400 visas were granted. Even many of those Iraqis--including the so-called "terps" (interpreters)--who risked life and limb to assist the American Embassy in Baghdad still remain in Iraq like sitting ducks.

Yet there has been no outrage from the Democratic opposition--no debate on the subject in the presidential campaign, no marches on Washington. Shame on the Democratic presidential frontrunners for not raising this subject more often. Shame on reporters who take the shibboleth from the White House as if it were fact. "Resources are finite and at this point, we're robbing Peter to pay Paul," James Foley of the State Department told reporters. Bullshit! Bush just proposed a $567 billion defense budget--a 7.5 percent hike over last year's military budget. Surely there must be some loose change floating around to help out Iraqi refugees.

The reason the White House refused to accept more Iraqis than countries like Sweden is because by doing so it is confirming that Iraq is a mess. Just as Republicans justify the greatness of America by the numbers of immigrants literally dying to get into the United States, the world justifies the failure of the Iraq war based on the numbers of Iraqis literally dying to get out. "It's a reluctance, or outright refusal, to recognize that things have gone awfully wrong," Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group told me last March in Amman. "Why would you have refugees if things have gone well in Iraq?"

There is also an image--or public relations--problem. The Iraqis scattered throughout the Middle East do not fit the historical mold of what refugees should resemble. There have been virtually no photos or television footage of bedraggled Iraqis fleeing the border (as there were recently of Palestinians fleeing Gaza, for instance). Those who got out earlier on--mostly urban professionals, like doctors, lawyers, and engineers--blended in with their new surroundings. In Amman, these exiles have snapped up expensive real estate. Mecca Mall, a popular haunt for Iraqi shoppers, has even been nicknamed Baghdad Mall. Put simply, these refugees did not seem to need U.S. assistance. The image of shop-till-you-drop Iraqis, living in luxurious villas in Amman and driving around in Range Rovers, did not exactly engender massive amounts of sympathy from Americans (particularly against the backdrop of Jordan-based Palestinians holed up in squalid refugee camps). Hence, attention in the immediate aftermath of the war did not focus on providing these refugees with assistance, housing, or visas, but rather on getting them--particularly the skilled professionals--to return back to Iraq.

That all changed after 2005. The numbers fleeing Iraq began to multiply (some experts say the February 2006 bombing of a holy shrine in Samarra tipped the balance), as services in Jordan and Syria became stretched thin and local tensions simmered to a boil. In Jordan, access to medical care, legal jobs, and education is denied to Iraqis--which are not classified as refugees but rather as "guests." That fueled poverty, petty crime and prostitution among the lower rungs of refugees. Middle-class Iraqis, meanwhile, complain of boredom, restlessness, and waning savings. "I sold my car to get here," G. Riad, 27, who fled Baghdad for Amman in August 2005 and works for his relative's marketing firm, told me last spring. "I'm middle-class but don't have enough money to stay here without working." Unlike their wealthier predecessors, the latest batch of Iraqi transplants mainly settled in the slums of eastern Amman, not the posh hilly suburbs of western Amman. Many have overstayed their residency permits and fear deportation back to Iraq.

The success of the surge will be felt only when Iraqi refugees begin returning to Iraq in droves. That is not happening. Until then, we owe it to them--and to their neighbors like Jordan and Syria (interestingly, Damascus can take the moral high ground on this issue!) to cut the red tape and repatriate more Iraqis on American shores. Whatever commission down the road investigates America's handling of the war should make the case that we acted with criminal negligence by not doing more to help the very people whose country we invaded and destroyed.