Every war leaves in its wake refugees and the displaced. Often, many among them are political refugees fleeing from oppressive political systems who may face torture or death if repatriated to their former countries. Try as it might, America cannot take them all in. But to special groups it owes special obligations. One such group is an Iranian regime opponent, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK/PMOI). Today 3,200 members of the MEK/PMOI remain isolated in a camp that has been described by General James Jones, President Obama's former National Security Advisor and Supreme Allied Commander, as worse than anything we have at Guantanamo. Daily, they face the prospect of deadly attacks and the overarching threat of forcible repatriation to Iran and Khomenei's executioners.
Why should the United States care about this group and press for opening its doors to give them immediate shelter?
There are several reasons, all of which deal not only with humanitarian impulses but with legal and moral obligations as well as the advancement of America's national security interests.
To put the matter in context, in June of last year the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that, absent clear evidence of any terrorist activity, the State Department can no longer place the MEK on its list of foreign terrorist entities. Unable to meet this standard, the State Department did what the European Union and United Kingdom had done earlier: recognize that the PMOI/MEK should no longer be tainted by the designation. Thus the greatest impediment to providing humanitarian relief and resettlement to the PMOI/MEK was removed. And, the State Department was seen as finally implementing what the US military had pledged to the MEK members nine years ago: that if they lay down their arms the United States would treat them as protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention and ensure their safety.
Yielding to the State Departments' requests, the MEK left their home of nearly 30 years at Camp Ashraf, a model small city they had built, and moved to camp "Liberty," an overcrowded unsanitary den of makeshift homes. They did this for the sake of speedy resettlement, expecting that operating in tandem with the United Nations, all would be relocated in two years time.
But "resettlement" from Camp "Liberty" turned out to be a cruel hoax. Transferred from Camp Ashraf, the PMOI/MEK members were left to scramble for survival in what they discovered was a hell-hole ironically called Camp "Liberty." Basic human rights -- such as freedom of movement, minimal sanitary conditions, access to lawyers, and family visits -- were denied. Ostensibly, they were there to be processed by UN officials, but one year into the "process" more bodies left Camp Liberty in body bags -- victims of Iraqi tolerated, if not supported, bombings -- than as live human beings resettled to begin life anew.
The truth is out. There is no resettlement in sight for the PMOI/MEK members. UN and US officials have recently told the residents that resettlement would take anywhere from three to ten years. Whether by accident or design, Camp "Liberty" is a charade. Those who accepted State Department assurances have been exposed to death at any time by forces like "Iraqi Hezbollah" operating with the tacit approval of Iraq to kill and maim scores of hundreds of innocent civilians at will. This is what happened on February 9 of this year when multiple rockets were fired on the defenseless residents resulting in seven dead and scores seriously wounded. The reason seems clear: surrogates for Iran's determination to destroy the MEK/PMOI abound in Iraq and operate with the government's approval if not direct support.
Before the unfolding of tragedy for the Jews of Europe the United States had an opportunity to open its doors to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and Austria. America knew very well the effect of denial of entry. A conference -- the Evian Conference of 1938 -- was organized by President Roosevelt to deal with the situation. But no doors were opened.
Reporting for the New York Times from that conference, its reporter wrote "It is a test of civilization. Can America live with itself if it lets Germany get away with this policy of extermination?" United States and Europe looked the other way, closing entry into the United States on an emergency humanitarian basis. In May of 1939, the German transatlantic liner, St. Louis, steamed in to New York harbor with 938 Jews fleeing Germany for their lives. Again the United States turned its back on them, forcing the ship to return to Germany where a great many of those on board would, predictably, perish in Nazi concentration camps.
Today, the dire-fate situation facing those at Camp Liberty poses a similar test of America's conscience. The 3,200 individuals at Camp Liberty are there because the United States gave them assurances that Camp Liberty would serve as an expeditious transfer point to resettlement. They are there because they trusted the earlier assurances provided by the United States government that they would be treated as protected persons.
In the aftermath of World War II, Earl Grant Harrison, a young distinguished attorney from Philadelphia, was asked to provide a report on the displaced persons camps of Europe housing Jewish Holocaust survivors. He found they lived in "crowded, frequently unsanitary and generally grim conditions...hoping for some words of encouragement and action on their behalf." To remedy the situation, Harrison called for sweeping changes, ultimately adopted, to allow those Jewish survivors to come into the United States to begin life anew.
Were Earl Grant Harrison alive today viewing the situation at Camp Liberty he would undoubtedly be issuing a similar report. He would point out to President Obama, as he did to President Truman, that if the United States fails to take the lead no other country will act. He would point out to President Obama that his legacy, like that of President Roosevelt in dealing with the Jews of Europe, will be blemished by failure to demonstrate moral courage. After all, beyond pressing humanitarian concerns is the fact that the MEK has stood up to America's mortal enemies, the mullahs ruling Iran, and called for a democratic pluralistic, non-nuclear republic to replace them. Harrison would be clamoring for either an Executive Order which allows the immediate entry of MEK refugees, or for legislative action.
While the residents of Camp Liberty await fulfillment of the promise of resettlement, they surely must not be forced to spend an extra day in Camp Liberty, unprotected from rocket attacks and in miserable living conditions. Camp Ashraf, 80 times larger than Camp Liberty, has fortifications, bunkers, and concrete buildings which are non-existent in Camp Liberty. They should be allowed to return there to be processed for resettlement, not left in the hell-hole of Camp Liberty.
If America does not act now to open its doors to the residents of Camp Liberty, or at least enable them to move to the safety of Ashraf, America will be viewed by its enemies as having given a green light to murder. Our enemies will see that despite America's tough words against Iran, the United States is prepared to placate Iran at the cost of those whom we have pledged to protect. Surely this is not the America we know and love.
Allan Gerson is the Chairman of AG International Law in Washington D.C., which represents the PMOI/MEK.