We Have a Moral Responsibility to Accept Iraqi Refugees

The majority of fatalities in the Iraq War are now Iraqis killed by their fellow countrymen, but the United States is ultimately responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe that Iraq has become. By invading and turning Iraq’s social order on its head overnight, the U.S. uncorked a civil war –replete with hideous acts of ethnic cleansing–that is as vicious as any that ravaged the Balkans during the 1990s. Now, the United States has a moral responsibility to offer safe haven to Iraqis fleeing the carnage.

An estimated more than 2 million Iraqis have fled their country since the war began in 2003. There are now more than a million in Syria, 700,000 in Jordan, 20,000-80,000 in Egypt, and around 40,000 in Lebanon. Inside Iraq, over one and a half million people are internally displaced and living in dangerous, squalid conditions.

The numbers:

Syria
1,000,000

Jordan
700,000-1,000,000

Lebanon
40,000

Egypt
20,000-80,000

Internally displaced   
1,700,000

Iraq’s refugee crisis has become one of the worst on earth, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 50,000 more Iraqis are fleeing escalating sectarian violence each month.

Since the beginning of the war, the United States has accepted just 466 Iraqis, including 202 in 2006. That number will rise to 7,000 this year. That’s a big increase, but nowhere close to the best we can or should do.

Let’s look at the situation in context.   

The United States is a country of 300 million people.

It will take in 7,000 Iraqi refugees this year.

Sweden is a country of less than 10 million people.

Last year alone, it took in 9,000 Iraqi refugees, roughly 80 percent of those who applied for refugee status there.

Years ago, I volunteered at a small refugee outreach organization here in the United States. The experience taught me a great deal about refugees and conflict. One lesson I learned was that in every sectarian conflict mixed families face heartbreaking decisions. Husbands and wives are torn between their mutual love and the relentless calls to arms from their respective religious or ethnic communities. Mixed couples and their children become targets for violence, as they are often seen as traitors by both sides in the conflict. This was the case in Bosnia and Rwanda, and it is now the case in Iraq.

Minorities, too, suffer even when they are not directly involved in the conflict. Iraq’s religious minorities are facing widespread persecution, and many minority Iraqi Christians and Baha’is have already fled the country.

And then, there are war’s completely blameless victims: the children on all sides. Iraq’s children are witnesses to the most horrible events fathomable: beheadings, sniper attacks, rapes, car bombings, torture. Children who see their parents and siblings murdered today will become tomorrow’s likely revenge killers –that is, if they aren’t removed from the conflict zone.

In the past, the United States has been more open to refugee resettlement. After the Vietnam War, it accepted more than 750,000 Vietnamese refugees. We should now relieve the burden of countries like Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan by taking as many Iraqi refugees as we can –and we can take many more than 7,000. This would be an expensive and complicated undertaking, but we were willing to fund the war, and we must be equally willing to fund measures to save Iraqi lives now that their country is in the throes of a full-blown civil war. Congress should pass legislation creating a large-scale resettlement program without delay. Accepting refugees is one of the few remaining ways we can ease Iraqi suffering.

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