commentary

(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

December 16, 2007

Make Room for Refugees

by Olga Oliker

It's time to help the Iraqis who've helped us, argues international policy analyst

After the Vietnam War, nearly 1 million Vietnamese came to America. After the 1991 Gulf War, more than 20,000 Iraqis were resettled in the United States. Over the past 30 years, hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Soviet Union, Cuba, Bosnia, Somalia and many other countries have found safe haven in the United States.

These immigrants came to a nation of immigrants. Like those who arrived before them, they have contributed to American science, literature, business, arts and daily life.

I, myself, came to America as a political refugee, fleeing Soviet persecution. Like so many others, my family and I were welcomed and offered generous support.

Today, tens of thousands of Iraqis are in grave danger, targeted because they have worked with the United States. Many have been murdered. Others have fled their homes because of attacks or threats.

These Iraqis have joined some 4 million others displaced by the raging violence in their country. Thousands continue to flee their homes every week, despite a reduction in civilian casualties over the past few months.

Many want to come to America, and we should welcome them. Our society would gain from this highly educated and capable group of people, who would contribute no less than have others. Iraqi immigrants also could help improve our understanding of the Middle East. But with only a small number of exceptions, the Iraqis who want to come to America cannot.

Even with welcome recent steps by the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to speed the processing of Iraqi refugees, the situation promises to only get worse because current procedures are insufficient. Why?

First, U.S. efforts to help refugees in Iraq have been concentrated in neighboring Jordan. Jordan has now closed its borders to Iraqis, overwhelmed by the hundreds of thousands already there.

Most Iraqis who have fled (often traversing dangerous territory and paying dearly to secure passage) are in Syria. Difficult U.S.-Syria relations have precluded the Department of Homeland Security from deploying staff there. Syria, moreover, also has now closed its borders.

As a result, the vast majority of Iraqis at risk because of their ties to the United States are not eligible for the refugee program. They are trapped in Iraq, in increasing peril, because none of their neighbors will let them in.

Second, processing still takes too long and has too many steps. To find a new home, Iraqi refugees first must register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Those fortunate enough are selected as candidates for the U.S. refugee program. Then they must undergo months-long security checks and homeland-security interviews.

In fiscal year 2007, fewer than 1,700 Iraqis were admitted to America. While improved procedures brought about 800 more in October and November, this is but a tiny dent in the backlog.

While Iraqis wait, whether in Jordan, Syria or another country of first refuge, they live in precarious circumstances. Most cannot get work, health care or education for their children. They are charged exorbitant prices for housing. Their money — likely their life savings — evaporates rapidly. Many are forced to return to Iraq, not because security has improved, but because they cannot stay in Syria or Jordan.

Third, no effort has been made to help more Iraqi refugees in the future. What happens if U.S. troops withdraw or significantly draw down? If Iraqis who helped America are in danger now, think of how much danger they would face then.

How should the United States respond?

  • First, policy makers should allow Iraqis who have worked with U.S. officials, contractors, military personnel or the media to apply directly for resettlement in the United States rather than having to first apply through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Most major resettlements to the United States were handled in this way, freeing the United Nations to help millions of others.
  • Second, as proposed by legislation currently under consideration on Capitol Hill, the departments of State and Homeland Security should start processing Iraqis as refugees while they are still in Iraq, which could save tens of thousands of lives. This would be hard, but not impossible.

    Homeland security staff would have to deploy to Iraq to carry out interviews, but they already visit Iraq to naturalize new citizens. Iraqis who work with U.S. personnel could be processed at the facilities where they already have undergone security screenings. Interviews could be conducted at U.S. military bases or reconstruction-team sites for those refugees who cannot reach Baghdad. Video conferencing could be employed.
  • Third, U.S. officials should prepare for the emergency evacuation of thousands of Iraqis who have worked with the United States in case of a crisis or a major U.S. drawdown. Staff should compile lists of individuals and families and develop contingency plans. This would be impossible to do during a crisis, so it must be done now.

Untold thousands of Iraqis have risked their lives to help America. America now must help them.


Olga Oliker is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit RAND Corp. and worked as an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq (oliker@rand.org).

This commentary originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on December 16, 2007.