Thousands of Iraqis who fled while bloody war ravaged their neighborhoods boarded buses this week to head back home. But millions more are hanging tough in refugee conditions that United Nations officials say are approaching a humanitarian crisis.
In a high-profile visit to the Mideast this week, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., is the latest in a series of concerned advocates for the refugees to challenge the United States to do more to help people who were displaced by the war the United States started with its invasion of Iraq in 2003.
McCollum said she met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Wednesday and told him, “I want our government to engage in a positive way to help meet the needs of refugees and restore stability in the region — including by providing more visas and working to allow more nongovernmental organizations to offer support services to refugees.”
The most recent comprehensive counts of the refugees were made last January, and numbers reportedly have increased through most of 2007. At that point, though, 1.3 million displaced Iraqis were crowded in Syria and another 600,000 in Jordan. Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands each had granted asylum to more than 20,000, according to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
The United States had taken 19,800 of the refugees.
“We find that appalling,” said Lavinia Limon, president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, which works closely with refugee agencies in Minnesota.
Many of the displaced Iraqis fled because their lives were threatened after they helped U.S. forces and government contractors — working as interpreters, drivers, construction laborers and other jobs.
“We get e-mails all of the time from Iraqis around the [Middle East] region with stories of how they worked for the United States and were targeted and notes were left on their doors warning them that if they didn’t leave within 48 hours they were going to be killed,” Limon said.
Americans have a moral obligation to help the displaced Iraqis regardless of their views on the war, she said. Many in the Bush administration have said the same.
“If you are pro-war, these people are our allies. If you are anti-war, they are the victims. Either way, they are America’s responsibility,” Limon said.
The United States had pledged to step up its resettlement efforts in fiscal year 2007 and take 7,000 Iraqi refugees.
In Minnesota, where refugees from around the world have made homes, some agencies geared up to help with Iraqi arrivals. The Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis made plans to assist a program for Iraqis in Michigan. Lutheran Social Service contacted Iraqi families in the Upper Midwest in search of those who may have relatives seeking asylum. And it looked into requests from returning U.S. soldiers to help individual Iraqis.
“There were military members coming back from Iraq and saying, ‘These people helped us, and now they are at risk,'” said Patti Hurd, who directs refugee and employment services for Lutheran Social Service.
But only 1,608 Iraqi refugees made it into the United States in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the State Department reported in a fact sheet released this month. Another 2,300 Iraqis got immigrant visas to enter the country, including 821 who had helped the United States as interpreters and translators. Refugee agencies in the Twin Cities said they aren’t aware of any settled in Minnesota.
Stepped up Efforts
Now the State Department is promising to do more. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently appointed a Coordinator for Iraqi Refugee Issues, Ambassador James Foley, who represented the United States in Haiti. He visited Damascus in October.
McCollum said in a statement that she met with Foley before embarking on her trip to the Middle East, and he offered “strong support” of her visit and her offers to aid refugees in Jordan and Syria. She serves on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations.
The State Department also acknowledged that as recently as February it had “virtually no refugee processing infrastructure” in Syria and Jordan. One problem in Syria is that the government had held back on visas for U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security workers who needed to screen Iraqi applicants.
Now the United States has established processing facilities, hired and trained staff and prepared thousands of cases for presentation to Homeland Security officials, according to the State Department.
The bottom line is that the United States has set a goal of resettling another 12,000 refugees by Oct. 1, 2008.
An estimated 4.7 million Iraqis have fled their homes, about half leaving the country and half moving elsewhere in Iraq, according to the UNHCR. Those displaced inside Iraq include some who had gone into hiding before Saddam Hussein’s harsh government was toppled, but many of them are on the run again because of the war, the agency said.
While the United States has sent millions of dollars for humanitarian assistance, few relief agencies had been set up to make use of the money in Syria. Without jobs, Iraqi families have crowded into cramped apartments and made do with shortages of health care, food, schools and other necessities.
McCollum visited Iraqi families Wednesday to view their living conditions in Syria.
One was the family of a former goldsmith who had owned a shop in Iraq before he was kidnapped and tortured. As refugees, he and his wife and three children sleep on a cement floor in Damascus while also trying to cope with their trauma and the loss of everything they had owned, McCollum said in a telephone interview from Jordan Thursday.
“Some affluent families who left Iraq early were able to sell their homes and come to Syria with money, but even that is running out,” she said. “Others who had been solidly middle class came with nothing but the clothes on their backs and they still have nothing… It’s a very desperate situation for many families.”
McCollum toured a hospital in Syria as well and said doctors are stretching resources but are unable to treat everyone, including children. “They were running the dialysis machines 24-7, and it still wasn’t enough to treat everyone,” she said.
McCollum said representatives of the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy accompanied her on the tour and reassured her “that we will see Iraqis who clear security coming to the United States in larger numbers.”
She has less confidence, she said, in the Iraqi government’s ability to improve conditions to a point where most of the refugees believe it truly is safe to return to their homeland. “The Iraqi government has failed to take advantage of the time the U.S. soldiers gave them with the surge,” she said.
For that reason, most Iraqis she met weren’t ready to return, she said, and it may be years before their crisis is resolved.
In October, Syria closed its borders, seeking to block some 500 Iraqis a day from entering the country. It also limited visas, warning that many Iraqis who had settled in Syria would have to leave.
Hopes for going home
Refugee agencies attribute the United States’ slow start in addressing the crisis to hopes the war would end and displaced Iraqis could go home rather than relocating in a new country.
“They were hoping peace would break out, mission accomplished, and nobody would have to do any of this,” said Limon.
On Tuesday, several busloads of returning refugees made a highly publicized departure from Syria, the Associated Press reported.
Iraq’s Ministry of Transport paid for the convoy and the government in Baghdad provided air and land protection, according to UNHCR. The returns were warranted, the Iraqi government said, because security improved after the surge of U.S. military forces this year.
Iraqi officials announced last week that as many as 1,600 refugees were returning every day and that a total of 60,000 have gone home. But news organizations and relief agencies said the number couldn’t be verified.
Of those who are returning, the refugee agency said, a large majority are going back for economic reasons.
“UNHCR protection officers interviewed many of the returnee families boarding buses in Damascus, and most said they were going back to Iraq because they had spent their savings and could no longer afford to stay in Syria,” the agency reported.
“My money is finished and my visa has expired,” Ahmed Hussein from Baghdad’s Sadr City district, told UN workers.
But some returnees were, indeed, convinced they would find safer neighborhoods than they left.
“The security situation in Iraq is much better, and the atmosphere is less dangerous,” said Abu Ali, who boarded a bus for Baghdad with his three children.
Sharon Schmickle writes about foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.