June 20 was World Refugee Day, designated by the United Nations to raise awareness of the plight of refugees. According to UN estimates, about 2.2 million Iraqis — close to half of them children — have fled their country since the US invasion in 2003. Unfortunately, the United States is missing a critical opportunity to build a positive long-term relationship with this younger generation.
Better relations with these young people and the rest of the Arab world's "youth bulge" should be a high priority for American foreign policy and assistance. Without a greater US effort, young Arabs will remain a ripe and malleable target for recruitment by radical Muslim groups.
Jordan and Syria, the primary host countries for Iraqi refugees, are facing increasingly strained resources, with both housing and jobs in short supply. Iraqi refugees live in impoverished communities with little international attention to their plight and little legal protection. This is particularly true in Jordan, which has not signed the United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees.
The refugee children — many of them the daughters and sons of Iraq's former middle class — are not accustomed to the destitute conditions they face. Concerns about their asylum status, possible deportation, and the residual impact of the violence that they witnessed in Iraq keeps many children idle out of fear. Others become child laborers or prostitutes to help support their families.
It will not be long before Islamic-based charities — both legitimate and otherwise — will begin to approach the Iraqi refugees with promises of free Islamic education, food stipends, and a sense of community. However, such services will come with a price.
One needs only to look to the Palestinian territories, where social services and terrorist recruitment and indoctrination are so inextricably intertwined that they are almost inseparable. Hamas has been able to effectively extend itself as a charitable group, exchanging food and clean water for acts of terror and votes. Ominously, Jordan faces strikingly similar water-poor conditions as the Palestinian territories.
For the young Iraqi men and boys who followed their families across the border to escape compulsory militia service and "insurgent-for-hire" work, this situation is especially dire. Terrorist recruiters, functioning via highly professional networks, will seek to co-opt moderate mosques, utilizing the values that are regionally resonant: pride and the responsibility to provide for one's family in times of need.
As the mosques adopt a more radical view, they will first offer youth a sense of community and self worth. But later, they will ask these vulnerable Iraqi youth to give back with their lives, encouraging them to perform suicide missions by promising stipends for their families after their deaths.
Only 4 percent of the Iraqi refugee population has received asylum in America. Only $7 million of the $30 million that the United Nations has spent on the refugee crisis across the Middle East has come from American donors. This relatively low level of US support and resources has not gone unnoticed by Iraqi refugees.
The Iraqi refugee situation is a tragic scenario of displacement and distress, but it also is a prime opportunity. Through the auspices of the international community, the United States should work to provide crucial social services and other assistance to the refugees, thereby creating a positive image in the minds of the youngest and most vulnerable Muslims.
American failure to provide needed assistance could effectively extend the scope and power of what is already a highly professional radical Islamic recruitment network across the greater Middle East.
© 2007 United Press International
Kristen Cordell is a Research Assistant who studies Middle East issues at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on June 28, 2007. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.