Iraqi Refugees & U.S. Responsibility

One week ago today U.S. State Department officials announced successful achievement of their goal to admit 12,000 Iraqi refugees into the U.S. before the fiscal year end on September 30th. Since then and till the end of the month we will hear the self-congratulatory appraisals of the State Department, the Senior Coordinator for Iraqi Refugees, and Homeland Security in what they are deeming a major benchmark of U.S. generosity by opening its borders to Iraqis. According to the State Department the humanitarian assistance to Iraq and Iraqi refugees already "surpasses [its] goal," and "reaches new heights." On the one hand, the appraisals overlook the past record and fail to note that although, true, the U.S. did surpass its goal, the bar was set so low it was easy to do. On the other hand, State Department claims lack sufficient context to convey the scope of the current crisis for assessment of the U.S. response.


Some general background to the Iraq refugee crisis is needed to understand the recent "success." Figures vary but estimates from 2007 and 2008 put the number of displaced Iraqis between 5 million and up to over 6 million (pdf) since the 2003 U.S. invasion. Within Iraq displacement peaked in 2006 (pdf) with an estimated number since February of that year being 1,596,448 individuals. Before then, going back to 2003, the estimated number of those displaced within Iraq is 1,212,108. The two numbers total more than 2.8 million individuals displaced within Iraq to date. The remaining 2-3 million (pdf) have been dispersed between Syria and Jordan (approx 44 percent), other Mideast countries (9 percent), Europe (4 percent), and elsewhere (0.5 percent). The 12,000 Iraqis the State Department boasts of in 2008 is approximately 85 percent of its total intake since 2003. That means that as of Friday September 12th the U.S. has admitted less than 0.3 percent of the total Iraqi refugee population since its invasion of 2003 (using the low estimate of 5 million refugees).


Three decades of war and sanctions have wrought significant deterioration of living standards in Iraq. The First (1980-88), Second (1990-91), and Third Gulf Wars (2003-present) combined with UN/U.S. imposed sanctions on Iraq (1990-2003) spanned the period. Estimates on the range of shared casualties from The First Gulf War (aka "Iran-Iraq War") are anywhere from 1-2 million. However, it was before 1990, the Second Gulf War, when Iraq was considered to have the highest living standards in the Middle East. Modern health-care, sanitation, and educations systems characterized the country. But the U.S./UK invasion brought the country’s infrastructure to its knees. The breakdown of electricity, water, sewage, transportation, food, and medical distribution systems ensued. Malnutrition, disease, and child and infant mortality rates increased multifold. Imposed in August 1990, the UN/U.S sanctions made it virtually impossible to recover from the destruction of the invasion. They targeted trade, food, medical, and humanitarian supplies. The sanctions were also cause of two successive resignations of coordinators from the UN Humanitarian Program in Iraq, and a third from the head of the World Food Program in Iraq. In 1998, after a 34 year career with the UN, including as assistant to the Secretary-General, Denis Halliday resigned from his position as coordinator of the UN Humanitarian Program in Iraq. He was the first. Halliday wrote then, that he resigned "because the policy of economic sanctions is…destroying an entire society. Five thousand children are dying every month. I don’t want to administer a programme that satisfies the definition of genocide."


In the ten years from 1992 till 2002, a year before the sanctions ended and U.S. occupation began, the U.S. admitted 31,170 Iraqi refugees into the country (pdf). After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the number of Iraqi refugees admitted into the U.S. dropped significantly. Between May 2003 and Feb 2007 between 466770 (pdf) Iraqis had been resettled in the United States. Soon after news broke of the paltry number of Iraqi refugees admitted into the country up to that February the U.S. increased its 2007 quota up to 7,000; although the quota was never met, falling far short of its promise, admitting only 1,600 Iraqis—less than 1/4th its targeted goal.


Omitting the 2007 quota failure from the Sept 12th State Department briefing last week, flipping the humanitarian failure on its head, Senior Adviser to the Secretary of Homeland Security for Iraqi Refugees, Lori Scialabba stated "This very significant increase [of admitting 12,118 Iraqis in the fiscal year of 2008] is over the 1,600 Iraqis that were admitted last year. This achievement reflects an extraordinary commitment on our part…" However UN, refugee, and human rights organizations responded to the announcement saying the U.S. effort "falls far short of what is needed," and have "expressed disappointment…at the State Department’s goal of resettling only 17,000 Iraqi refugees for the 2009 fiscal year." The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that in 2009, 90,000 Iraqi refugees in the region will be in urgent need of resettlement. "The U.S. response is incommensurate with the scope of the need," groups including Refugees International, Human Rights Watch, and Save the Children said in a statement.


Aside from the U.S.’s poor 2003-2007 record on resettling Iraqi refugees, as well as Scialabba’s omission of the 2007 quota failure from her report, the claim that current U.S. aid to Iraq "reflects an extraordinary commitment on our part" can be assessed by:


(a) U.S. admittance of Iraqi refugees compared to other countries admittance

(b) U.S. aid to Iraq compared to aid from other countries

(c) U.S. aid to Iraq in contrast to U.S. aid to other countries

(d) U.S. per capita aid to war dollars for Iraq



(a) For countries taking lead in the Iraqi refugee crisis the U.S. has, not only one of the lowest number of entries since 2003 (14,000), but also one of the lowest per capita rates when compared to other countries. For the U.S. to match Sweden, the 4th highest ratio, it would have to admit 1,330,000 Iraqis, 1/4th of all displaced Iraqis, and around half of those outside Iraq. For the U.S. to match Syria it would have to admit 23,077,000 Iraqis—1,684 times greater than what it has to date since 2003. Obviously there is a limit to this kind of comparison. First, the actual number of Iraqi refugees is far less than the 23 million needed to match Syria’s refugee intake. Second, to demand the U.S. admit a number of refugees just less than the entire population of Iraq would be excess. Third, and understandably, there are geographical and cultural reasons why Iraqis would flee to those countries on its border rather than the U.S., one of the farthest countries away. However, the figures suggest that many other countries are taking, overwhelmingly, more than their fair share of the burden while the U.S., despite Scialabba’s claim, is doing the least. Taking into account UNHRC estimates for Iraqi resettlement needs in 2009 the U.S. record since 2003 comes far short of its responsibility and one could even say the record amounts to neglect of the crisis.



Table Comparing Ratio of Iraqi Refugees to Host Country Citizens Since 2003



Iraqi Refugees






















United States






(b) The State Department claims that the U.S. has been the "largest contributor to programs assisting displaced Iraqis since 2003," and that its contribution "has risen to more than $318 million for this fiscal year," although it does not say what amount has actually been committed, contributed, or simply pledged. (Note: A search using the ReliefWeb Financial Tracking Service (FTS), under Appeals & Funding, shows U.S. aid to Iraq as of Sept. 15, 2008 amounting to less than 1/3rd the claimed amount by the State Department, although it is hard to know the accuracy of these figures.) Even assuming the U.S. claim of 318 million aid dollars in 2008 will be accurate, it is little more than $1.00
per capita this fiscal year. Ireland, with a population of just 1/75th that of the U.S. has pledged almost the equivalent per person in aid money to Iraq (2.9 million Euros), while Canada which has pledged 300 million USD between 2003 and 2007, at an average of 40 million a year (2006-2007 amount), comes to 1.21 per person in aid dollars. These and other comparisons point to the U.S. as being an average contributor in financial aid to Iraq.


(c) While U.S. per capita aid to Iraq may be comparable to some countries but exceeded by others, it is by far the largest contributor of aid to Georgia. Three days before the State Department briefing on Iraqi refugees the department announced commitment of 1 billion aid dollars to Georgia (Displaced People Are First Priority of New U.S. Aid to Georgia, Sept.9). According to the department the money is marked for "Georgia" and not just limited to those 215 thousand displaced Georgians. The low estimate of 5 million Iraqi refugees is greater than the entire population of Georgia and the 215 thousand displaced Georgians amount to just under 5 percent of displaced Iraqis both inside and outside of Iraq. According to the CIA World Fact Book on Iraq the country has a 2008 population of just over 28 million people. Of the 1 billion aid dollars marked for Georgia, 570 million will be dispensed in 2008, amounting to a per capita comparison of U.S. committed aid money between Georgians and Iraqis at 121 USD:11 USD respectively. Yes, that is $121.00 USD per Georgian to $11.00 per Iraqi in 2008. It could be argued that this single comparison cannot tell us much. However, the combination of Georgians quickly becoming one of the largest per capita recipients of U.S. financial humanitarian assistance and Iraqis quickly becoming one of the largest refugee populations due to the U.S. war make this comparison extreme in scale and therefore illustrative. The most obvious conclusion that one might draw is that the U.S. places more value on human life where its geopolitical ambitions are still contested.


(d) While U.S. aid for Iraqis is said to fund programs for food, health, education, water, sanitation, etc., the U.S is arguably the most responsible for their near complete deterioration beginning 18 years ago with sanctions and culminating in the current and ongoing occupation. Although the 2008 fiscal pledge for Iraq aid was said to "reach new heights," and certainly its aid pledge to Georgia has, neither is as impressive as what U.S. citizens are spending per person to wage war and occupation on Iraq. Estimates range from 9.5 billion, 12 billion, and up to 25 billion per month this year to pay for the war on Iraq. That is between 114 billion and 300 billion dollars per year, or 38 thousand to 100 thousand dollars per year, per U.S. citizen. That is a per capita ratio of either 1:38,000 of aid to war dollars (low-end), or 1:100,000 aid to war dollars (high-end) in the fiscal year of 2008. This comparison illustrates a stark contrast and it would be reasonable for someone to conclude that the U.S. is less about creating better living conditions for Iraqis and more about making war on them. The same person could also conclude that this is why Iraqis are fleeing Iraq in droves.


After dressing up U.S. commitment to Iraqi refugees in the Friday State Department briefing, Senior Coordinator for Iraqi Refugee Issues Ambassador, James B. Foley described the process for Iraqi entry into the U.S. as "steady," "streamlined," "compressed," and although he confesses admission can take up to 6 months he confirms that the "machine is working." The many agencies comprising this "streamlined" "machine" include the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), The U.S. Department of State’s (DOS) Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). It is "compressed" still further with "Overseas Processing Entities" (OPE), U.S. embassies, "certain non-governmental organizations" (NGOs), and "governmental and non-governmental partners, both overseas and domestically." An independent observer could interpret the process to be like a maze designed to keep Iraqis out rather than let them in. The few Iraqi’s who do make it through to the U.S. are confronted with immediate obstacles such as language barriers, finding jobs, education, supporting family members, and having medical care—most the things that the U.S. has shattered in their home country.

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