The Plight of the Refugees

Written by: Diana McDougle

New York University

April 27, 2007


The unilateral 2003 U.S. led incursion of Iraq has resulted in the largest humanitarian crisis since the Palestinian exodus from Israel in 1948. To date, there are at least 2 million refugees of the Iraq war. The United States has done little to address the crisis. It goes virtually unreported in the press. The Bush administration has yet to speak publicly of it. Between the years 2003 and 2007, the United States allowed fewer than 700 refugees into the country. Should the U.S. and the International community fail to adequately address this issue soon, there will be no hope of reconstruction in Iraq . Citizens spanning each and every socio-economic class are opting to flee the war-torn country. Those left behind are being under-educated and suffering from psychological ailments associated with existing daily in the face of a constant, unrelenting, threat of violence. The world must engage in International diplomacy aimed at the facilitation of a realistic and beneficial immigration policy; not only for the benefit of the refugees in question, but the world as a whole. Continuing to leave a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude virtually un-addressed can only result in the exacerbation of an already volatile and deadly situation.

Almost four years ago the Bush Administration unilaterally invaded the country of Iraq - despite grave concerns raised by the United Nations and the International community. The complete and utter failure to acknowledge the socio-anthropological challenges posed as a result of invading the region have resulted in a military failure reminiscent of Vietnam . A severe failure to predict the repercussions of invading a country so culturally and historically diverse has catapulted the world into crisis mode. The deterioration of the country has led to a full-scale civil war for which the Bush Administration is, and has been, ill-equip to manage – let alone remedy. In the American press we are inundated with haunting images of the dead and wounded Americans. We have now officially lost more lives as a result of the Iraq War than were lost to us on 9-11. Prior to the incursion, the Administration made every attempt to link the September 11 th attacks with the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. Even then, this was a highly debatable assessment, and today it has been proven to be conclusively and irrefutably false. Unsubstantiated claims made by the Administration meant to embolden the rational for an Iraqi incursion have been disproved. Never was it more evident that the President and his staff had no idea regarding the quagmire they initiated then when George W. Bush ran around a naval ship in the Pacific Ocean under a “Mission Accomplished” banner. The result of this criminal lack of awareness has been the largest humanitarian crisis since the Palestinian exodus from Israel more than sixty years ago. Internally, more than 600,000 Iraqis have been displaced (Cowan 2). Refugee camps inside Iraq are becoming commonplace. The American press has failed us in this respect. Very little media coverage has been afforded the more than 50,000 innocent Iraqis who

have been killed as a result of this war. The negligent manner in which the Bush Administration has conducted the Iraq war has resulted in two million poverty stricken Iraqi civilians (thus far) who have been forced to flee their homes in search of foreign borders. The vast majority of Iraqis have fled to bordering countries such as Syria , Lebanon , and Jordan . Jordan now has at least 800,000 Iraqi refuges residing within its borders (Krandish 1). The United States has a moral obligation to aid in the immigration of these refugees as they would not have been relegated to this status were it not for the current administration's unlawful incursion of their homeland.

The implications of the refugee crisis are only beginning to be seen and felt, and the long-terms effects are incalculable. From an economic perspective, Iraq has been utterly devastated. The price of reconstruction has soared into the billions. It is now estimated that the costs in Iraq are averaging six billion dollars a month. A graver concern still, is the fact that Iraqi professions vital to the reconstruction effort have drained their economic resources in order to escape the war-torn region. Normal social activity and function has ceased to exist. People have grown leery of venturing far from their homes for fear of encountering the escalating sectarian violence. Thus far, there has been no political resolution in Iraq . The Bush administration's attempts at implementing a functional democracy have failed miserably. The execution of Saddam Hussein was turned into a Sunni vs. Shiite media spectacle. One only has to conduct a simple Internet search to uncover video footage from the execution. The refugee crisis continues to spiral out of control. The International community has taken little action to adequately addresses the crisis, and the disaster is conspicuously absent from U.S. media sources. Yet conditions for the two million homeless and displaced Iraqis worsen daily.

The challenges being faced by the refugees of this war are infinite and vary according to one's education, resources, and immigration status in the country to which they've fled. In many instances Iraqis are unable to work because they are residing in their new country illegally. In other cases, highly educated and skilled workers are unable to integrate into their chosen professions because their skills, experience, and education do not necessarily translate to the new country in which they are now living. As a result of the difficulty associated with the pursuit of a professional career, thousands of Iraqi refugees are currently living in poverty and squalor. The personal refugee accounts I have come across have been heart wrenching. In the February 4 th edition of the Washington Post, Raghavan Sudarsan tells the story of Uday. Uday is a thirty year-old college graduate, and a former Baghdad resident. Two years ago Uday fled Baghdad for Northern Iraq at the urging of his family who was concerned about the instability in Baghdad . The security situation in Northern Iraq continued to deteriorate, and Uday's brother was killed. Today Uday is living as an illegal immigrant in the Jordanian capital of Amman , where he cannot get permission to work, and lives in constant fear of being deported to what is now war-torn Iraq . Thousands of Iraqis who have not been able or willing to leave have been displaced; some as a result of the destruction of their home and belongings, and some in a effort to save their lives and the lives of their families.

The emotional repercussions of the war upon Iraqi civilians still residing in the country cannot be accurately calculated or predicted. They continue to evolve and worsen quite literally by the minute. The trauma associated with leaving one's home, community, friends, and often times family, are immense. A myriad of extenuating circumstances are contributing daily to the separation of families, both immediate and extended. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this war is the burden and sacrifice Iraqi children are being made to bear. This is yet another aspect of the war going enormously under-addressed by the U.S. and the world alike. As a result of the war it is estimated that approximately 25% of Iraqi children are currently receiving no education whatsoever. In some cases their schools have been destroyed in bombings. In other cases, children are living illegally in foreign countries with their parents. Many who have stayed behind are opting out of sending their children to school due to the associated security risks and potential psychological implications. The young people weathering the war-torn storm in Iraq are also the generation that will be largely responsible for putting their country back together. This task becomes all the more great if a large portion of civilians left there are psychologically damaged and undereducated. A recent study published by the Association of Iraqi Psychologists reported a series of disturbing psychological afflictions being suffered by Iraqi children as a result of the violence in their homeland, including bed-wetting, panic attacks, muteness, and violence toward other children and their parents (2). Consequently, parents fearful of potential and existing security threats have begun to keep their children home from school. Abdul Muhammad is one of five siblings. Last year he witnessed a teacher at his school be taken from his car by a group of armed men who proceed to kill him by slitting his throat. Since this horrifying event Abdul has suffered from nightmares, anxiety, and depression. Abdul's mother is a widow with five children. She does not have the means or resources necessary to flee Iraq (3). Because it is predominately men who are being killed in the sectarian violence in Iraq , many women and children are being left widowed and relegated to poverty. The reconstruction effort in Iraq will be seriously compromised as a result of fewer Iraqi children being properly educated. Thousands are suffering from mental and physical ailments. The effort is largely dependent upon the capabilities of those living there to rebuild communities. The fact that young people in Iraq are mentally traumatized and under-educated heightens the likelihood that the reconstruction effort will be severely hindered. Adult professionals who are vital to the reconstruction of Iraq are fleeing the war-torn country in order to obtain protection and security for themselves and their families. Consequently, they will be absent for the reconstruction of their own country.

Thousands of refugees are living illegally in foreign countries because they are unable to obtain amnesty. Western countries such as the United States and Britain , the instigators of the Iraq War, have proven the most reticent to address this problem. This point has been demonstrated in the number of refugees they have accepted – which has been miniscule. Sweden 's lenient amnesty guidelines have rendered them a chief recipient of Iraqi refugees in Europe . Last year over 9,000 Iraqis migrated to Sweden , and 2,000 to Australia . Since 2003, the year the war started, the United States only accepted 663 Iraqi refugees (Lanteaume 1). The European Union convened last month to formulate emergency measures relevant to the Iraq refugee crisis. It is likely that the Bush administration's reticence to accept Iraqi refugees has been political in nature. The acceptance of Iraqis may be deemed by many a clear indication of the fact that the reconstruction in Iraq is failing. Examples of U.S. communities demonstrative of previously failed war efforts are little Havana in Florida , and little Saigon in California . Political smokescreens do not negate the fact that millions of Iraqi refugees are in desperate need of a solution to the matter of immigration.

There are thousands of Iraqis who have gone to work for the United States in Iraq . Not only have these people been turned away, but they also face the gravest danger in staying. On January 2 nd , 2007, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the story of an interpreter in Iraq who sought refuge from ten embassies in Jordan to no avail. He was repeatedly informed that there was nothing available for the Iraqis ( Martinez 1). In Iraq , those that are found to have been working for the U.S. are in constant and imminent danger of torture, kidnapping, and execution. Those who have managed to flee are contending with another set of problems.

In order to better understand the difficulties being experienced by those included in the estimated 2 million Iraqi refugees count, I sought out local immigrants in my own community, both legal and illegal. I live in a region rich with agriculture – the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon . My home is in a pear and apple orchard. I have grown familiar with the workers that routinely maintain the area surrounding my house. One woman, who works with her husband in the orchard, stores household appliances, clothing, and tools, in my barn. One day I looked out the kitchen window to see her unlocking the padlock to the barn to retrieve some of her items, but I did not see a car. I have no neighbors. There are no sidewalks. It would be an extremely unusual occurrence for someone to reach my home on foot. I went outside just as she was leaving the barn with a toolbox in hand. I watched her walk down a road that cuts through the center of the orchard to a vehicle her husband was working on. I followed her down, and suggested they use the driveway. She shyly declined, saying they were fine out of the way. Her husband nodded nervously in agreement. At this point it occurred to me enormity of the constant stress that must be felt when one is trying to remain inconspicuous in a country that is foreign to them. I sat down to talk with another man, Jose, who works in the kitchen of a local restaurant. Through a translator Jose described to me the difficulties and worries that affect he and his family (which includes he, his wife, his three children, and his mother) on a daily basis. First and foremost Jose worries about papers. His children were born here, but he and his wife live in constant worry of having the proper documentation in order to avoid being forced to leave. He knows the life he would be able to make for them in Mexico would not be nearly as nice as the one they have made here together. He likes it here. His wife likes it here. His mother likes it here, and the children enjoy school, their classes, their friends and their community. As I spoke with Jose, I found myself considering the degree of stress one must experience when attempting to consistently and indefinitely ensure that their entire family maintains current, legal documentation so that they may continue living in the region they have made their home. I have become easily overwhelmed by the simple task of passport renewal. Evaluating the experiences of those who have migrated and are attempting to assimilate into a culture so entirely different from their own provides only minimal insight into the difficulties facing Iraqi refugees. For their experiences may be exponentially more severe than that of Jose and his family. Many have seen loved ones killed, their homes destroyed, and their communities disbanded. Analyzing the obstacles facing Jose and his family provides only a template to understanding the plight of refugees, but it cannot possibly fully convey the challenges to be overcome by Iraqis.

At this juncture one must wonder how a crisis such as this could have wielded so hopelessly out of control without eliciting the consciousness of the American public. Not long ago I was reading George Orwell's The Politics of the English Language, written by Orwell in 1946. Orwell addresses the lack of specificity and consequent ambiguity associated with the English language. He speaks to the presence and influence of language in politics. If politicians were forced to speak in concrete terms regarding socio-economic and related issues, the public's perceptions and interpretations could not be so easily manipulated. To that end, were the public to assume responsibility for their public leaders, requiring that their speaking qualities include clarity and accountability, common verbal phenomens such as double talk and meaningless metaphors would cease to exist. The failure of people to use, as well as require others to use, the English language appropriately creates the opportunity to deceive and mislead the public. One such example is the term “collateral damage”. In the days preceding the war, and in the days, and now years, after, the Bush administration has asserted that they have and will continue to avoid as much “collateral damage” as possible. As far back as 2003, when it was still widely believed that we had only been engaged in a three week war, the Bush administration made it clear that they had no intention of providing body counts of Iraqi civilians and soldiers killed by U.S. and British forces. The New York Times reported that the issue of casualties pertaining to Iraqi citizens had not been referenced or discussed at the daily press briefings (Isaacs 1). Forming words into phrases such as “collateral damage” does not necessarily conjure up images of permanently disfigured and disabled children suffering in a hospital bed (if they're lucky) or in a roadside ditch somewhere (if they're not). Nor does this type of phraseology allow one to mentally internalize what it is to have more than 50,000 dead civilians in a region the size of Iraq . This is precisely the type of collateral damage the Bush administration is making a concerted effort to minimize. The concept of casualties, and the manner in which said casualties are calculated is yet another source of conflict and consternation. In a report issued on March 13 th , 2007 by the Council on Foreign Relations, vastly different death and casualty numbers were issued dependent upon who was reporting them. The Iraqi government reported that since April of 2003, the civilian death toll in Iraq is between 100,000 and 150,000. Yet another independent organization in Iraq – Iraq Body Count – reports 62,000 dead civilians since April of 2003 (2). The numbers are nearly impossible to accurately calculate; it is common custom for many Muslims to bury their dead without seeking out a hospital or an undertaker (1). Even the United States agrees however that the civilian death toll has exceeded 50,000, and that alone is a horrific number. The failure of the Bush administration to use clear, concrete, specific, language, when discussing Iraq has resulted in an inaccurate and distorted perception of the horrific human toll that has been, and will continue to be paid; by both Iraqis and Americans.

It is incomprehensible to think that a travesty of this magnitude has gone virtually unacknowledged by the primary instigators of the war leading up to such a crisis. It begs the question of how the United States and Britain could have failed to realize the dire nature of the situation. The most probable explanation is likely political. To admit there is a refugee crisis would be to admit that Iraqis are not longer safe in their own country. There is no way to continue to assert that Iraq is in the process of being rebuilt into a thriving democracy, while simultaneously managing an evolving Iraqi refugee crisis. Both the United States and Britain have been reticent to acknowledge the escalating civil war that has been, and continues to, spiral out of control in Iraq - despite a plethora of mounting evidence. Although the allowance of 7,000 Iraqi refugees into the U.S. is miniscule in comparison to the burden other countries such as Sweden , Jordan , Egypt , and Lebanon have been bearing, the development is nonetheless significant. The admission that there is a refugee crisis at all forces the Bush administration (at least to some degree) to admit the war policy in Iraq is failing. In terms of the American public's perception of the situation, it may serve to accentuate the lack of responsibility the U.S. has taken thus far; therefore heightening awareness regarding the humanitarian crisis resulting from the war.

It is my hope that this will serve as a catalyst for International dialogue relevant to the refugee crisis in Iraq . The United States and Britain should be playing an integral role in the formulation of International policy for the purpose of managing this issue. This does not translate into opening our borders freely. Iraqi refugees migrating to a western country will encounter incalculable trials and tribulations that would not plague them were they to migrate to countries not so far removed from their own homeland in terms of language, culture, religious, practice and affiliation, etc. In truth, Iraqis seeking refuge in western countries like the United States may actually be hindered with regard to the rebuilding of their personal and private lives. A major issue is language. A person previously successful in a particular profession or trade in their home country will not easily be able to re-assimilate into a western culture. Pursuing past career endeavors in a country so entirely different from their own may prove an impossibility. The result of this will be refugees performing jobs in western society that will more than likely be far below their ability and education level. This phenomenon does a disservice not only to the Iraqi, but also to the country in which they have migrated to. If a refugee is able to contribute to a new society to their full capacity, unencumbered by existing cultural hurdles, he or she will be able to generate a far greater income, not only providing security for him or herself, but also generating more tax revenue for the country receiving them. The presence of cultural and political contributions may then materialize, therefore translating into an asset for the whole of society as opposed to a burden, or liability, a common perception of refugees among citizens of the affected country. Attempting to integrate into a country so completely different from one's homeland makes the aforementioned contributions virtually impossible to achieve.

My method of policy would consist of a system in which Iraqi refugees would be able to migrate to stable countries with similar political, social, and language customs to their own. At present countries such as Jordan are being inundated with refugees, both legal and illegal as a result of geographic convenience. I am proposing that the International community set aside their political differences and work together to formulate the most optimum policy for the re-distribution of the two million Iraqi refugees in question. Through International diplomacy facilitated by an International organization such as the United Nations, we may be able to determine how best to assist the refugees in their migration to new countries and societies. Ideally this coalition would work together collaboratively in an effort to create a realistic immigration policy in accordance with the refugees specific needs, expectations, and skill levels. For instance, if a country such as Morocco has a need for medical professionals, Shiite refugees equip with skills specific to the medical profession would migrate to Morocco , which is 98% Muslim, and the predominant language is Arabic. Sunni refugees might be granted amnesty in a country such as Algeria , where the population is 99% Sunni Muslim. No one country would be burdened by an influx of refugees unable to contribute and/or assimilate into that particular region's society. There would be an equitable distribution relative not only to the refugee's needs, but the country assuming the refugees as well. The United Nations would facilitate the migration of the refugees, and all member countries would be actively engaged in the facilitation. If the refugees are provided the adequate tools necessary to succeed, success will inevitably materialize. Consequently, former refugees will be contributing and valuable members of a society they can understand, relate to, and therefore assimilate to. Far from being a burden upon their new communities, they will be valued. In the U.S. it is likely that Iraqis will form their own communities largely independent from American culture, custom, and tradition. This has repeatedly proven to be true of other foreign refugees who have migrated to the United States . The inability to understand a society so entirely different from one's own makes this type of grouping a natural inclination. Countries such as Egypt , Libya , and Morocco are much more realistic and feasible alternatives for displaced Iraqis. With the necessary research andcollaborative thinking amongst participating countries in the United Nations, it is my belief that this type of migration can, and should be pursued. It is time for the United States to accept responsibility for the human toll that has, and will continue, to wreak havoc upon Iraqi society. To date we have accepted fewer than 500 Iraqi refugees into this country. In the interim countries which played virtually no role in the war are bearing the brunt of the crisis. The result has been crowding, poverty, and sky rocketing unemployment rates. We have an undeniable obligation to aid these refugees in the rebuilding of their lives. The United States and Britain should be actively formulating and implementing adequate and realistic immigration policy with the United Nations for refugees of the Iraq war. As the world comes together to determine effective Iraqi immigration policy, the ability of the refugees to adapt in the communities to which they migrate should be of the utmost concern and the ultimate objective. Immigration into western societies may not be the most viable solution for refugees of this war. Disparity in religious customs and beliefs will inevitably prove difficult to overcome. The Bush Administration was quick to disguise the occupation of Iraq as being a ‘liberation of the people'. The Iraqi people have not been liberated; they have become prisoners in their own homes and country. The only hope in this is that surely, albeit gradually, the American public will come to terms with the true and unadulterated horror in Iraq and demand accountability, demand policy change, and ultimately demand an end to it.


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