Friday, September 24, 2004


Refugees will be an inevitable consequence of this war

When the U.S. invaded Iraq, the government and humanitarian organizations anticipated a large outflow of refugees. Camps were set up along the borders of Syria, Jordan and Turkey. A few refugees emerged, but not nearly the numbers that had been expected.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that from the First Gulf War of 1991 until 2003, there had already been a surge of refugees, either from that war or from Saddam Hussein. Many of them went to Iran.

According to the UN's IRIN news organization,

Most Iraqi refugees in Iran are Shi'ite Muslims of Arab descent. Coming from southern Iraq, near Basra, they fled Iraq in the aftermath of the first Gulf war in 1991 when Saddam Hussein issued a crackdown on Shi'ite rebellions in the south. It is estimated that around 1.3 million Iraqis crossed the border into Iran at that time. Around 22 per cent are Kurds.

There were over 202,000 Iraqi refugees in Iran in September 2003 - over half the entire Iraqi refugee population in the world. About 50,000 of them are housed in 22 refugee camps in Iran, which are situated along the country's western border with Iraq - this number is significantly higher than that for Afghan refugees, of whom only about 2 percent live in camps.

Some of these refugees are repatriating, which is a story I will save for another post. But it is about current and future refugees that I want to write.

American and American-supported wars have generated large numbers of refugees who became refugees because of their support for the Americans. Examples that come to mind are the pro-American Vietnamese, Hmong and Salvadorans. U.S. policies toward them have been uneven and ever-changing. But one thing is certain—once a refugee problem is created, it persists for generations!

Consider the Hmong. Here is a background from the California Dept. of Social Services:

At the end of the Vietnam conflicts in 1975, hundreds of thousands Hmong people fled Laos to seek safety in Thailand. These Hmong people who fled Laos supported and assisted the United States (U.S.) during the Vietnam conflicts. Thailand provided many refugee camps to house the Hmong people who had fled Laos, but in the mid 1990s the last of the camps were closed. For fear of repatriation, many Hmong refugees moved to the Buddhist Temple of WTK in Thailand to be with relatives and to find sanctuary. Through the years, there have been so many negative political changes in WTK that the Buddhist Temple can no longer continue to provide a safe haven for the Hmong people who settled in the Buddhist Temple's land.

For many years, the U.S. State Department had not considered these Hmong refugees as candidates for resettlement to the U.S. However, in December 2003, U.S. officials shifted gears and declared that they would start processing Hmong refugee applications from WTK, Thailand beginning February 2004.

The first of these Thai-based Hmong refugees were brought to the U.S. in June—almost 30 years later!

Sooner or later we are going to withdraw from Iraq, and what we are going to leave behind—as in Vietnam—is not going to be an America-friendly environment. When that day comes, there will be the refugee crisis that everyone expected at the start of the war. Instead, it will come at the end.

What brought all this to mind was a strange little inclusion in a NY Times article today. The article, which was about the killing of the "deputy director of the oil products department in Nineveh Province for the North Oil Company," ended with an insert, probably accidental, from the AP:

U.S. Asylum for Iraqi Girl, 15

WASHINGTON, Sept. 23 (AP) - A 15-year-old Iraqi girl who claimed persecution in Baghdad because her family cooperated with the United States military has been granted political asylum here. The case is believed to be among the first instances of an Iraqi seeking political asylum in such circumstances.

The girl and her mother, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation against other family members still in Iraq, received the letter on Thursday from the Citizenship and Immigration Services, according to Jeff Sullivan, their Washington lawyer. The girl came to the United States last year with her mother for treatment of a cancerous growth in her cervix. The two subsequently applied for political asylum. The mother is pursuing asylum for the father and three other children still in Baghdad, Mr. Sullivan said. [emphasis added]

As in Vietnam, the U.S. will be considered, by many of its citizens and by most other countries, to have a responsibility to these refugees. These people supported the U.S., and our sense of fairness—indeed, the world's sense of fairness—will demand that the U.S. do all that it may to help.

But the Iraqi refugee problem is going to be far more burdensome to the United States—and to the non-Muslim world—than the Vietnamese crisis could ever have been.

Here's why: Compare the situation with that of Vietnam. When the U.S. and other countries allowed entry to the Vietnamese refugees, I'm sure they made an effort to exclude supporters of the North Vietnamese regime. But if they made a mistake, so what? There are probably some former Viet Cong drawing Social Security even as I write.

But the Iraqi refugees, whether by fact or supposition, will be perceived as potential terrorists and suicide bombers. Who among the non-Muslim countries is going to take them?

And have you seen this mentioned anywhere?

Follow-up post
An open secret: The Iraqi refugee crisis is growing (4/18/05)

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