Iraq's Refugees

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Opinion Iraq's Refugees

They are fleeing their homes at the rate of 50,000 a month, and they need help.

January 22, 2007 - Washington Post Editorial 

ONE OF THE few postwar problems the Bush administration prepared for before the invasion of Iraq was a refugee crisis. It didn't occur in the spring of 2003, and for months afterward administration officials pointed to that fact as a sign of the war's success. Now, four years later, a refugee crisis is exploding -- and, as is so often the case with Iraq, the administration has been slow to recognize the problem and even slower to respond.

The crisis essentially began last February, when the bombing of a Shiite mosque touched off sectarian war across Iraq. Since then, according to the United Nations, some 500,000 Iraqis have been displaced from their homes, and 40,000 to 50,000 more are leaving every month. As many as 2 million Iraqis are abroad, including many who left during the regime of Saddam Hussein. The majority are in Jordan and Syria.

The negative consequences of this exodus could go well beyond a humanitarian tragedy. Jordan could be politically destabilized by the influx of Iraqis. Most of the refugees in Jordan and Syria are Sunni; as the history of the Palestinians vividly demonstrates, these communities could easily become bases and breeding grounds for the Iraqi insurgency.

The U.S. response has been shockingly small. Though it is spending $8 billion a month on the war, the Bush administration has budgeted only $20 million for refugee assistance this year. Only 466 Iraqis have been allowed to immigrate to the United States as refugees since 2003, including 202 last year. Most shameful has been U.S. treatment of translators and drivers who have risked their own and their families' lives to work for military units in Iraq: Just a handful have been granted asylum, and a special visa program has a six-year waiting list.

At a Senate hearing last week, State Department official Ellen R. Sauerbrey suggested that the number of Iraqi refugees accepted in the United States could be expanded, using most of the 20,000 emergency slots set aside annually, if funding were provided. Pressed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), she also indicated that State would consider a special parole program to expedite the admission of Iraqis. Congress should make sure the necessary funding is included in an upcoming administration supplemental budget request for the war.

More steps are needed. The United States ought to greatly increase funding for U.N. refugee programs; it should allow Iraqis to request U.S. asylum at the embassy in Baghdad and consular offices around the country and not just outside of Iraq. It should begin working with Jordan on ways to ensure that Iraqi refugees there are provided with adequate services and jobs.

The best way to help Iraqi refugees, of course, is to secure their country so that they can return home safely. Since that won't be possible anytime soon, the United States is bound by both practical and moral considerations to address a crisis that it helped to create.

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