Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, March 30, 2007

The plight of Iraqi refugees

The severity of the Iraqi displacement crisis, coupled with the inability of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to handle the overwhelming burden, was the highlight of a Congressional Human Rights Caucus briefing Thursday. Congresswomen Jan Schakowsky, who led the briefing, expressed disappointment in the U.S. State Department for declining the invitation to be represented on the panel. Rep. Schakowsky engaged the panelists present with meaningful questions that helped draw a complete picture of the current humanitarian crisis in Iraq.

An estimated two million Iraqis have fled the country due to sectarian violence. An additional two million (approximate) are internally displaced within Iraq. “The violence is extreme and indiscriminate,” said Kristele Younes, with Refugees International, recounting how one woman was forced to flee Baghdad after receiving threats for cutting hair in a beauty salon. “My welding workshop was visited by American soldiers and then I had threats,” one Iraqi man told Anna Husarska, with The International Rescue Committee, during her recent visit to the country.

Dored Shiba, an Iraqi-Assyrian community leader in Skokie, Illinois, reported to the Caucus the challenges Assyrians face in Iraq. These indigenous peoples of Iraq can hardly live in the south of Iraq due to the sectarian violence, have to pay protection taxes to militias to stay alive in central Iraq, and are referred to as “Christian Kurds” in the north, yet displaced by the Kurds from the Assyrian’s “historical homeland,” said Shiba.

The responsibility to assist both the refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) typically falls on UNHCR. Funding for the organization, however, is far below where it needs to be in order to handle a crisis of such severity. The UNHCR’s budget in 2006 for the Syrian office equated to only $1 per registered refugee within its borders. Additionally, security issues in Iraq prevent UNHCR from fully staffing its office in the country, which further decreases the organization’s ability to assist those displaced.

Panelists expressed similar recommended solutions. The U.S. should contribute additional funds to UNHCR. In addition to this multilateral aid, bilateral aid to Syria and Jordan should also be increased, so as to ease their burdened economies from the massive refugee flows and prevent further border restrictions. Simultaneously, the international community should reassure Iraq’s neighbors that the refugee situation will not be permanent. To help reduce this flow, the U.S. should increase the number of refugees to be resettled to the U.S., as it has a “special obligation” to do so, said Ben Sanders, of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

In order to reduce some of the strain on UNHCR and expedite the resettlement process, the U.S. embassy in Iraq should directly handle the cases involving Iraqis who work, or have previously worked with the U.S. government. These individuals should not have to go through an additional security clearance, since their backgrounds were extensively reviewed in order to initially obtain the contractor position, panelists said. As Sanders said in his testimony, “We have the opportunity to regain our leadership position in the world and support our friends. We should not let them down.”


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