The numbers are so staggering that they are hard to process mentally and impossible to process logistically: each month some 60,000 Iraqis are voting with their feet against the surge of U.S. forces by fleeing their homes. Since the invasion, more than 2.5 million Iraqis have left for neighboring countries, while 2.2 million have been forcibly displaced within Iraq - too poor to escape the country or blocked from transitioning through more peaceful provinces, which in recent months have erected checkpoints to keep them out. To put it in stark historical terms: the war has created the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since the displacement of the Palestinians in 1948.
This should give pause to any American of any stripe who hopes to call the current war a success at any point in the near future. The fact is that a huge percentage of the Iraq population has left the country, figuring that life as a destitute refugee holds more hope than life in Iraq.Here is what it looks like on the ground: in two short years, a million Iraqi refugees have poured into Syria, a country of 19 million. In U.S.-population terms, this would be the equivalent of 15 million Iraqis arriving on our shores. Overwhelmed by the deluge, Syria has said it will begin requiring visas for Iraqis next month, the practical equivalent of shutting its doors, while Jordan, which has admitted 750,000 Iraqis, closed most of its border crossings earlier this year.
And now the bordering countries are going to turn off the pressure valve!
Despite all this, the U.S. debate about withdrawal from Iraq seems remarkably indifferent to those whose lives have been upended. The Bush Administration talks of staying the course without expending nearly enough political or financial capital to mitigate the humanitarian catastrophe that it pretends does not exist. Many advocates of withdrawal point to the humanitarian disaster as a ground for leaving without addressing how worse suffering might be averted.
Thus far, the American discussion of the refugee crisis has focused on the paltry number of Iraqis the U.S. has let in. Although the U.S. was the lead architect of the invasion, only 535 Iraqis were granted entry last year. Sweden, which opposed the war, took in 8,950. Ironically, in 2000, three years before the war, the U.S. admitted 3,145 Iraqis, whereas fewer than 1,700 Iraqis have been resettled on American soil in the four years since.
The situation has grown so desperate that even our mild-mannered ambassador, Ryan Crocker, sent a harsh cable to the State Department on Sept. 7, titled "Iraqi refugee processing: Can we speed it up?" He complained of the endless "bottlenecks" delaying entry even for those Iraqis who had risked their lives working for U.S. forces. Crocker pleaded with immigration and Homeland Security officials to fast-track the screening process so the State Department's recommended 7,000 asylum slots could be filled.
But while expeditious review and expanded quotas are urgently needed, they will not affect the welfare of the several million Iraqis who have lost their homes and their livelihoods. If the Administration is to ease the toll on Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Syria and persuade them to welcome Iraqis in need, it must extend massive assistance to those governments to help fund shelter, food, sanitation, health care and transportation for arriving Iraqis. Among the 200,000 Iraqi children who have fled to Jordan, only 20,000 started school in the past year, and 6,000 of them dropped out. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should have taught us, the grievances of refugees may start as humanitarian concerns, but they quickly become security problems.
That's all we need. More uneducated middle-Eastern youth with memories of fleeing their homeland due to America's actions during the "Great Game.'
President George W. Bush is in denial about the refugee crisis. He claimed this month that "ordinary life is beginning to return" and warned that with a U.S. departure, "Iraq could face a humanitarian nightmare."
Well, at least it shouldn't face a housing shortage.
But he has refused to deal with the nightmare already under way. It is as if he fears doing so would mean conceding the costs of the U.S. invasion and would undermine his arguments for staying. As he argues that we have a moral responsibility to Iraqis, it would be inconvenient for him to draw attention to how we have shirked that responsibility.
In addition, if the President were actually to insist that the U.S. and its allies resettle Iraqi refugees in earnest, he would be making it that much harder for an educated, moderate Iraqi middle class to reconstitute itself. How would Iraq "unleash the talent of its people and be an anchor of stability in the region," as Bush promised, if its doctors were practicing medicine in Detroit and its English speakers were in Langley, Va., translating Arab press reports for the CIA?
The brain drain is a legitimate concern, but the welfare of Iraqis fleeing for their lives cannot be held hostage to Bush's romantic dreams for a "free Iraq." The U.S. lost the war in Iraq. At the heart of the debacle in Iraq has been the repeated failure to deliver a more secure life for Iraqis. It is long past time that we stop simply debating the "fate of Iraq" and start addressing the fate of Iraqis.