The Refugee Crisis

No matter where you stand on U.S. involvement in Iraq, it is difficult to deny the impact the war has had on Iraqi civilians. Current estimates figure that between four and five million people have been forced to flee their homes. Slightly more than half have fled the country, settling primarily in Jordan and Syria, while the rest make up what are known as "internally displaced persons" (IDPs). Finding a solution to the refugee crisis is not easy. The United States is loath to recognize the problem, as it would amount to recognizing the persistent misery generated by almost six years of war and occupation. Meanwhile, the response of European countries has also lagged far behind.

Scott Harding is an assistant professor of Community Organization and co-director of the Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work at the University of Connecticut. As part of an ongoing research project, he and a colleague, Professor Kathryn Libal, spent two months in 2007 and 2008 conducting interviews about Iraqi refugee relief efforts with NGO and UN representatives in Turkey, Jordan, and Syria. I interviewed Harding by email last December.

Who is leaving Iraq?

HARDING: The research done by the United Nations and other groups suggests that most segments of Arab Iraqi society have been displaced by the violence in Iraq. The refugee population has significant proportions of both Sunni and Shia Arabs, the middle class, as well as low-income families. We also know that key groups have been disproportionately impacted, especially Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq, who have been targeted for persecution. As important, there has been a "brain drain" of doctors, teachers, professors, engineers, and other well educated and trained professionals. This has compounded a problem that existed before the current exodus; the ongoing conflict has intensified this trend and threatens the future of Iraq and its ability to rebuild key institutions and infrastructure.

What are the main factors driving this migration?

Violence, persecution, and fear. The United Nations, as well as many of the NGOs we interviewed, have consistently noted that large numbers of refugees have directly experienced violence or death threats, had family members who were targeted or threatened, or had a reasonable fear of persecution if they stayed. So the overwhelming majority of people who have fled have done so in pursuit of safety.

A scholar from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health recently wrote that the refugee crisis in effect supports a controversial study showing that there have been more than 600,000 war-related Iraqi deaths since 2003. That study has been disputed by government officials and largely ignored by the mainstream media. As someone who works with these issues, what can you add to the debate?

Unfortunately, there will not be consensus on this key issue. First, it’s important to note that the Bush administration never tried to account for civilian casualties and deaths in Iraq, a deliberate effort to deflect attention from the human cost of the war while maintaining domestic support for military operations. The Iraqi government has also sought to avoid this question, largely by limiting access to data about violence and civilian deaths.

Second, a number of organizations and scholars have attempted to estimate Iraqi deaths using different methodologies. As could be expected in an active war zone, their estimates vary widely and each study has generated some disagreement, if not controversy. The Iraqi government claimed 150,000 civilians were killed between 2004 and 2006. The Iraq Body Count, an independent public database of violent civilian deaths derived from media reports in Iraq resulting from the 2003 U.S. military intervention, suggested a death toll (in early 2009) of approximately 90,000-100,000 Iraqis. In 2008 the World Health Organization estimated 151,000 violent deaths occurred from March 2003 through June 2006, more than triple the Iraq Body Count estimates for the same period.

A much higher casualty figure was produced by a preeminent British polling firm—Opinion Research Business—in January 2008. They estimated "that over 1,000,000 Iraqi citizens have died as a result of the conflict which started in 2003." If accurate, this meant that some 20 percent of Iraqis have experienced at least one death in their household due to the ongoing conflict.

Here’s the bottom line: while the various figures show key differences, even the lowest estimates highlight the dramatic level of violence in Iraq since 2003. What’s most troubling about this is the relative silence by the U.S. Congress and mainstream media about the loss of life in Iraq. Instead, we hear about the "success" of the surge. Similarly, little notice has been paid to the changing life expectancy rates for men and women in Iraq: the current life expectancy rate at birth is 57 years. Life expectancy in Iraq dramatically improved in the late 1970s and 1980s, and then declined significantly with the onset of economic sanctions in 1991. Factoring in gender reveals that life expectancy rates for Iraqi males at birth have plummeted to 48 years, reflecting their risk of dying prematurely from violent causes. So while the Bush administration convinced the media that Iraqi civilian deaths don’t merit news coverage, life for the average Iraqi—in terms of life expectancy, malnutrition, infant mortality, access to clean water and health care, and economic opportunity—has actually regressed since 2003. It stretches belief to suggest that U.S. policy in Iraq has been a success.

By some accounts, Iraqis form the largest displaced population in the world today. Yet, in an article for Middle East Report, you cite United Nations data describing Iraq as "the 2nd least funded of the 15 most severe humanitarian crises in the world." What might explain this reluctance?

In the last year funding for displaced Iraqis from the U.S. and other donor nations has improved, due in part to the advocacy of human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations. Yet funding is still below the global "appeals" made by various UN agencies working to serve displaced Iraqis. The Bush administration was slow to respond to this crisis, largely because they sought to minimize the extent of conflict and human displacement in Iraq as doing so would undermine their claims that U.S. policy was "working." Many of the countries most capable of providing significant funding to the UN were essentially waiting until the U.S. provided more aid before they stepped in.

The American effort to resettle refugees has been sluggish, to say the least. In 2006, Sodertalje, Sweden—a city of about 62,000—granted asylum to more Iraqi refugees than the entire United States. Has the balance shifted since then?

Yes, but only slightly. In fiscal year 2008 more than 12,000 Iraqis were resettled to the United States, which meant that the annual goal for Iraqi refugees was met. It is estimated that approximately 15,000 Iraqis will be resettled here each year for the next 3 years. So after an initial reluctance to take Iraqi refugees, there has been a notable shift in U.S. policy. Again, this occurred in large part because of the advocacy of key organizations working to influence public policy.

Last June, Amnesty International released a report, "Rhetoric and Reality: the Iraqi Refugee Crisis," in which they state that the U.S. has been promoting a "false picture of the security situation" in Iraq in order to encourage the return of refugees. What’s your take on this?

There seems to be a clear causal chain of events that forced the Administration to begin to seriously address this crisis. Human rights groups and NGOs utilized field research to highlight the ongoing mass displacement and violence. They used their work to pressure the media to cover the refugee crisis in more depth starting in late 2006. These groups also worked with members of Congress and the State Department, beginning in 2007, to change U.S. policy by providing more assistance to UN agencies, as well as bilateral aid to states dealing with Iraqi refugees. They also forced the government to increase the number of Iraqi refugees admitted to the United States. Begrudgingly, the Bush administration was forced to support these initiatives, though it still claimed that its policies have brought stability to Iraq.

What are some solutions to the Iraqi refugee crisis that have been proposed by legislators and non-governmental organizations?

Iraqi refugees in Syriaphoto from UNHCR

Most of the "solutions" only address partial aspects of this crisis. The idea of increasing humanitarian assistance for refugees in Jordan, Syria, and other states is important, even if these refugees are not fully integrated into these countries. It’s also useful to continue to pressure the U.S. government and key European nations to accept Iraqi refugees, though the numbers admitted will be small compared to the overall population. But these are not "long-term" solutions. If we want to see stability in regional states like Jordan and Syria; if we want to avoid the long-term prospect of hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis stuck in limbo in countries where they don’t have legal status and cannot work legally; if we care about the well-being of a people our government claimed it was liberating from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, then the U.S. government has to do much more to promote political reconciliation within Iraq. That’s obviously a tall order, but until people feel that the security situation has improved dramatically, they won’t feel it is safe to return to Iraq.

What can people do to get involved?

Aside from learning more about this issue—getting informed about Iraqi displacement and the human cost of the ongoing war—ordinary people do have the capacity to influence media coverage and help shape public policy. It’s clear that most members of Congress are not well informed about Iraqi refugees and IDPs, but also about the general state of human development inside Iraq. Having meetings with these officials or holding public education events can help build public awareness and create momentum for key policy changes. There will be federal legislation this year addressing these issues and there is a clear need for additional support for such measures. Local communities should also be thinking about what role they can play to facilitate a smooth transition for any Iraqis who might be resettled.

Finally, people need to take ownership of U.S. foreign policy to ensure that we avoid another Iraq. Unfortunately, Barack Obama, like many Democrats, is intent on escalating U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. At the same time he wants to maintain a U.S. presence within Iraq. You can talk all you want about "fighting terrorism," and "protecting our way of life." But U.S. troops fighting in a foreign country are usually viewed as occupiers, not liberators, by the local population. There is little to suggest that current U.S. foreign policy—which Obama generally supports—makes the United States any safer. It instead contributes to instability which in turn facilitates human displacement. Until more people demand a radical change in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, we’ll be faced with more humanitarian crises, unresolved foreign conflicts, and decreased resources at home to meet basic human needs.

You’ve been active in a variety of causes over the years—from the Central America solidarity movement to homelessness and housing issues. Talk a bit about your definition of social justice and how it guides your work.

The idea of social justice informs my teaching, scholarship, and much of the professional and volunteer work over the past 25 years. It’s directly linked to the idea of solidarity—international and working class solidarity with those groups that experience oppression from a global system predicated on inequality. My teaching and academic research is oriented toward confronting injustice and oppression. I do that specifically because of my belief that "ordinary people" can make history, that social change has been the result of organizing, advocacy, and disruption from below, from the grassroots. In that sense, social justice is a personal belief or value, but it’s also a principle grounded in the reality of human history.

Despite all the harmful things done by human beings toward one another—violence, war, slavery, various forms of discrimination—there has also been a historic trajectory of human progress. I’m simply trying to add my contribution to the inevitable.




Seth Kershner is a graduate student and freelance writer based in Western Massachusetts. His reviews have appeared in various journals, including Counterpoiseand Progressive Librarian.