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Morton Abramowitz Headshot
George Rupp Headshot

Uprooted Iraqis: Worse Off, Not Better

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Over the past three years, we have investigated one of the unintended byproducts of the Iraq War: uprooted Iraqis. While the exact numbers are disputed, it is safe to say that between 3 and 4 million Iraqis have been forced to flee. Today, despite occasional reports exaggerating the numbers returning to their homes, most of the Iraqis who fled are still in exile. They live in poverty in Amman or Damascus or nearby. Or they stayed in Iraq and are trying to restart their lives in cities that are foreign to them, while strangers occupy their real homes and threaten them with harm if they return. Many of the uprooted are worse off than when they first fled. They need real help now.

Why has the situation worsened and what needs to be done about it? First, middle class Iraqis who fled to other countries have run through their savings. They depend on charity to survive while their children grow up in foreign countries, under-educated and facing poor prospects. The United States, Europe and the Gulf states should continue to respond generously to appeals to help them. Cash assistance has to be increased, and all children enrolled in school. Countries that host them should grant refugees temporary legal status and allow them to work.

Second, the government of Iraq has done little to help their displaced citizens. In 2008, the Iraqi authorities acknowledged the problem but directed aid to helping Iraqis returning from abroad -- a miniscule number. A few months ago, we visited displaced Iraqis living in Erbil. They told us they cannot go home to Baghdad, Mosul and elsewhere because they fear violence -- and how they knew of other families that had been harmed when they did return. They also experience a "Catch-22": they cannot receive benefits without a registration card, and registration has been spotty or offered only to those who return home. The US and other countries must insist that the Iraq government cut red tape and do more for its displaced citizens.

Third, uprooted Iraqis still have very good reasons to flee. Unlike other populations of refugees who leave home because they fear something bad might happen, Iraqis fled crimes against their families or themselves. Visit an Iraqi refugee family and they will show you the photos of murdered relatives and recount tales of threats, car bombings, kidnappings and ransoms, and scars on their children. They were attacked because of their religious beliefs or education level or job history or for collaborating with Americans. Their suffering continues. Their old neighborhoods have been destroyed or emptied of people like them. And, according to the UN refugee agency, medical problems-depression, anxiety and chronic disease-are widespread among this group. More Iraqis should be allowed to restart their lives in the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe, which in particular should be doing much more.

There is one area of good news, though it emerges only from the very bad experience of Iraqi refugees. The small fraction of educated, skilled Iraqis allowed to come to America-some with help from Iraq War-era friends who served as soldiers, aid workers and journalists -- tested our aging refugee-admissions system and found it wanting. Run as a partnership between the U.S. Government and aid resettlement agencies like the International Rescue Committee, it was originally designed to accept large numbers of Vietnamese, but the government's share of support for the program had deteriorated over time. Overstretched charities tried to make ends meet, but the economic downturn brought the whole system to the breaking point. Iraq War veterans and other concerned Americans were outraged. As a result, the Obama Administration is reviewing the entire process of how refugees are admitted to the United States and has taken the first critical steps toward repairing it, including more support in the first weeks after they arrive.

The American public understandably wants to put the Iraq War behind us. Political parties, elections, and oil revenues are benchmarks on a path to recovery for the nation of Iraq. But as Americans, we bear a special responsibility to Iraqis. We should not ignore the human tragedy still unfolding in the Middle East.

Morton Abramowitz is a former Assistant Secretary of State and Ambassador to Turkey and Thailand. George Rupp is the President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. Both visited the Middle East as members of the IRC Commission on Iraqi Refugees. To read the IRC's report, "Iraqi Refugees: A Tough Road Home," please go to: http://www.theirc.org/special-reports/iraqi-refugees.