By Andrew Lam
New America Media
Five years ago the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) described the Iraqi refugee crisis as “the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since the displacement of Palestinians following the creation of Israel in 1948.”
Not much has changed at the end of 2012, a year after US forces pulled out of Iraq. “Some one million people remain displaced throughout the country, of whom hundreds of thousands live in dire conditions,” the UNHCR recently noted. “Most are unable to return to their areas of origin because of the volatile security situation, the destruction of their homes, or lack of access to services.”
More than 2 million have fled to neighboring countries, where many subsist in designated resettlement areas. The United Nations reports that women are increasingly forced to resort to prostitution. Child labor has become a scourge. In Syria, more than 30 percent of Iraqi children are without schooling.
Yet while the United States had a direct hand in creating the exodus by invading and occupying that country for nearly a decade, spurring a civil war between religious groups, it is now more or less washing its hands of the refugee problem. Since 2007, the US has admitted a mere 64,000 asylum seekers – a pittance compared to the millions displaced — and the number of refugees admitted has been going steadily down since 2010.
As of 2011, more than 30,000 Iraqis have applied for a Special Immigrant Visa, specifically created by Congress to expedite their cases, but to date only about 4,000 have been processed, and over one-third have been denied.
Perhaps the real problem has more to do with politics: Accepting Iraqi refugees would be akin to America admitting defeat in the aftermath of its efforts to pacify Iraq and the region. Former president George W. Bush prematurely declared Iraq a country of “freedom” and “democracy,” while President Obama, as a candidate in 2008, acknowledged that alleviating the Iraqi refugee crisis was America’s “moral obligation.”
“The Iraqis who stood with us are being targeted for assassination, yet our doors are shut. That is not how we treat our friends,” candidate Obama declared. Alas, President Obama has done essentially nothing to abate the crisis since then.
Over a thousand translators who once worked for American military forces and British armies, and foreign journalists — not to mention those hired by US companies doing reconstruction and those working in the Green Zone — have been targeted and killed by various insurgent groups. Those who survived and remain are now living lives exponentially imperiled by the pullout of US forces.
History reminds us that there is a clear moral if not geopolitical mandate for the United States to help Iraq’s refugees. In Vietnam, many of those who allied themselves with America during the war and stayed in the country were later sent to re-education camps; some were summarily executed and many were stripped of their properties. A far worse fate is likely for those who threw in their lot with America in Iraq, and who are now quickly becoming victims of its latest foreign-policy failure.
When Congress debated whether to let in Vietnamese refugees in 1975, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern said it was better for the “Vietnamese to stay in Vietnam,” and West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd thought that “barmaids, prostitutes and criminals” should be screened out. But President Ford threw his support behind the Vietnamese outcasts.
Witnessing such an act today from the president would seem unlikely, given rising anti-immigrant sentiment and a collective fear of mass migration from the Middle East. Besides, how could Obama accept Iraqi refugees when just last year, Secretary of Defense Leon Paneta declared the war has given “birth to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq?”
“We’re not meeting our basic obligation to the Iraqis who’ve been imperiled because they worked for the US government,” noted Kirk W. Johnson in a New York Times article a few years back. Since then, Johnson, who penned “To Be a Friend is Fatal: A Story from the Aftermath of America at War,” has worked tirelessly to help those who once allied with the US army. “We could not have functioned without their hard work, and it’s shameful that we’ve nothing to offer them in their bleakest hour,” he wrote. Many who once allied with the US now are in hiding, their application to the United States facing glitches and denials of employment. For those in Afghanistan, take heed: To befriend Uncle Sam can indeed be fatal.
But it’s inevitable that each time he ventures abroad, Uncle Sam leaves an unfinished story, and nowhere is it most unfinished than in Iraq, where despite flowery speeches regarding freedom and sovereignty by the Obama Administration, despite assurances that tyranny has been “cast aside,” the tragedy and displacement caused by the United States invasion, occupation and abandonment is of an epic proportion.
New America Media editor, Andrew Lam is the author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora” (Heyday Books, 2005), which recently won a Pen American “Beyond the Margins” award and “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres.” His next book, “Birds of Paradise Lost” is due out in 2013. He has lectured and read his work widely at many universities.