Over the past week, we witnessed the last American combat troops withdraw from Iraq. If we do not now increase our aid to the 2.2 million displaced Iraqi refugees they may soon have a detrimental effect on our future security.
As innovative as America is, prevention is not one of our strong points. One of the least talked about aspects of the 2003 US-led allied incursion into Iraq is the Iraqi refugee crisis. Over the past 7 years, over 4 million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes and 2.2 million have sought shelter mainly in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Although conditions vary greatly in these three countries, a few themes have emerged. The majority of refugees are not able to work due to their undocumented status, and they have limited access to education.
If the head of an undocumented Iraqi household is not able to work in one of the aforementioned countries he may turn to other outlets to feed and support his family. As Iraqi Voices Amplification Project (IVAP) member Michael Jordan said during a panel discussion at Intersections International, the people the refugees may turn to do not necessarily share our values or ideals. Imagine an Iraqi refugee in southern Lebanon who is dependent upon Hezbollah for food. Multiple this by 2.2 million -- the number of Iraqi refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Apart from the inability to access a livelihood, a generation of Iraqi children is now being raised without any basic critical thinking or problem solving skills. I hasten to think how this generation will make well informed decisions in the future. Iraqi children will suffer when competing with their peers for employment, and may find themselves unemployed, poor, and living on the margins of society. Just like in the previous example, someone will have to provide for them who may not share our principles.
The US has an indirect responsibility for creating the Iraqi refugee crisis; however, we are doing little in terms of solving this crisis. Since 2003, we allowed in less than 50,000 Iraqi refugees. This number is dismal compared to our European allies. Sweden, a country of 9.2 million, for example, has accepted over 40,000 Iraqi refugees since 2003.
Upon arriving in the US, Iraqi refugees are afforded very limited resources. They are expected to integrate into their host country with little assistance or services. For precisely this reason, a new trend has emerged in which Iraqi refugees in the US often return to Iraq. This speaks volumes of our inability to absorb others into American society.
Last week, the last US combat troops withdrew from Iraq. The remainder of American troops are slated to come home by the end of 2011. We should use the next several months to work with our Middle Eastern allies in Jordan and Lebanon on improving their Iraqi refugee policies. We must also acknowledge the generous work the Syrians have done in terms of helping Iraqi refugees, and work together with them to help solve this stagnant crisis.
The opportunity exists for the United States to play a stronger leadership role in this crisis by providing greater assistance to Iraq's vulnerable refugees. By generously funding humanitarian support programs and resettling larger numbers of Iraqi refugees in the United States, the American government can begin to overturn the anti-American sentiment that has emerged while sending a clear signal of its leadership and commitment to this issue.
The 2.2 million Iraqi refugees far outnumber the 1948 Palestinian refugee population and easily surpass the Darfur refugee population in Chad. In order to ensure that this under-reported refugee population does not become a future security risk -- and to meet our moral and ethical obligations as President Obama said -- we should act now to help resettle Iraqi refugees in favorable conditions that afford them the opportunity to earn a livelihood and educate their children. If we continue to ignore this problem, who knows what the Iraqi refugee dependent upon Hezbollah will have to do to feed his family.
This article was co-authored by C. Eduardo Vargas.
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