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Luis Carlos Montalván Headshot

Iraq Refugees Look to President's Lincoln and Obama

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Today is World Refugee Day. The United Nations designated June 20 as the annual day "...to recognize and celebrate the contributions of refugees throughout the world."


But for millions of Iraqis, today is hardly a day to celebrate.

"The country [Iraq] is dealing with one of the largest humanitarian and displacement crises in the world," reports Refugees International (RI).

The United Nations still reports government estimates of up to 4.8 million Iraqis displaced within the last 6 years, with 2 million fleeing, primarily to Syria and Jordan.

On April 21, 2009, the General Accountability Office (GAO) released, "Iraqi Refugee Assistance: Improvements Needed in Measuring Progress, Assessing Needs, Tracking Funds, and Developing an International Strategic Plan," a comprehensive assessment of the Iraqi refugee crisis.

The 78-page assessment paints a bleak picture of the situation.

"According to U.S., UN, foreign government, and NGO officials, the international community lacks a comprehensive international strategy to address the Iraqi refugee situation."

It looks as though the US response to the Iraqi refugee problem has come up wanting, on every front.

It's time for a change.

Historically, dealing with refugee crises is not something the US does very well.

Arguably, the US government responded to its first refugee crisis under President Lincoln's administration in the aftermath of the Civil War.

To help deal with the colossal scope of the problem, on March 3, 1865, Mr. Lincoln signed legislation to establish the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands.

The Bureau was formed to aid Civil War refugees, and through education, health care, and employment, the Bureau became a key agency during Reconstruction, assisting freed ex-slaves in the South.

The Bureau was located in the Department of War.

The very next day, March 4, 1865, President Lincoln gave his now famous Second Inaugural Address. In his speech he remarked about the importance of Reconstruction after the war,

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds...which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

But Lincoln was struck down the following month and the Bureau was officially abolished in 1872. Consequently, from 1877 to 1965, States and localities enacted "Jim Crow laws" thereby stifling Lincoln's vision of assisting the refugees (mostly former slaves). It would take 99 years for the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 to renew what Lincoln began.

Today's contemporary refugee bureau, the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, (PRM) exists within the US Department of State.

Among the responsibilities of a US Assistant Secretary of State, who directs the PRM, is the oversight of "...efforts to encourage greater participation in refugee assistance and resettlement on the part of foreign governments."

So, then why is there still no US-formulated "international strategic plan" to deal with the world's largest refugee crisis caused when our nation invaded Iraq over 6 years ago?

President Obama and Acting Assistant Secretary (for PRM) Samuel M. Whitten may do well to ponder one of the inscriptions in the Memorial that is two blocks from the Department of State.

On this World Refugee Day, can we do better?

Yes, we can.