Major displacement crisis continues as U.S. troops leave Iraq
U.S. and coalition governments have responsibility to help the most vulnerable
14 Dec 2011 - As the U.S. government withdraws its troops from Iraq, it leaves behind a major crisis in the region—with three million Iraqis displaced and desperate and tens of thousands of others in danger because they worked for the U.S. military.
“The United States may be ending its military mission in Iraq, but it still has a responsibility to aid Iraqis uprooted by the war it started and to protect the most vulnerable, especially those who put their lives in jeopardy to help America,” says Bob Carey, the International Rescue Committee’s leading resettlement policy expert.
Many of the estimated 70,000 Iraqis who worked for the US military, government and contractors—and their families— are regularly threatened, harassed, kidnapped or killed. Religious, ethnic and political minorities are also targeted with violence and persecution.
But critical US programs that give sanctuary to these and other Iraqis are mired in bureaucratic delays.
In 2008, Congress passed legislation that allowed for 20,000 expedited Special Immigrant Visas to be issued to endangered Iraqi staff by the end of 2011. But fewer than 3,000 have been allotted to date and thousands of applications are pending.
There is a significantly larger bottleneck when it comes to the processing of Iraqis through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. During the 2011 fiscal year, only 9,388 Iraqi refugees were given protection in the United States, compared with 18,016 the previous year.
“An already cumbersome and inefficientscreening process has become crippled by new and often redundant security checks,” explains Carey. “As a result, many Iraqis in harm’s way, including former employees of the U.S. who already had security clearances, are waiting a year or more to learn their fate. Rigorous screening is vital, but these delays are unacceptably long and put lives at risk.”
Displaced Iraqis face uncertain future
While tens of thousands of Iraqis await resettlement, the majority of the uprooted prefer to stay in the region despite enormous challenges in rebuilding their lives. The UN estimates nearly 1.3 million Iraqis are displaced inside Iraq and 1.6 million Iraqi refugees remain in nearby countries like Syria and Jordan.
All of them were driven from their communities by waves of combat and sectarian violence and few are willing to venture home amid ongoing instability and persecution. Houses left vacant are now occupied by strangers and many are in disrepair, without electricity, potable water and sanitation. Most displaced Iraqis today express hope that they can fully integrate into the locations where they currently live or move to new housing on land designated by the Iraqi government.
In the meantime, uprooted Iraqis languish in mostly urban slums, growing increasingly destitute. They have difficulty finding jobs, accessing basic services or supporting their families. Out-of-school children suffer exploitation and years of lost learning. Inside the home, pervasive anxiety, stress and trauma have led to alarming levels of domestic violence.
The most forsaken of the displaced are also the poorest— approximately 450,000 Iraqis living in deplorable conditions in some 380 squatter settlements scattered around the country. Most of the settlements have been set up in abandoned buildings or on empty plots of land.
“In the case of the Al-Rahlat settlement on the outskirts of Sadr City in Baghdad, almost 8,000 people live in cramped shanties in a muddy area strewn with trash and pooled with stagnant filthy water,” says Mike Young, who oversees the IRC’s relief programs in the Middle East and Asia. “These families live in squalor, in some of the worst conditions I’ve ever seen.”
Most squatters have little or no access to clean water, proper sanitation, adequate shelter, medical assistance or opportunities to earn an income and face a constant threat of eviction. The IRC has delivered water tanks to some settlements and septic systems to others, but the needs remain vast.
Bureaucratic hurdles regularly prevent Iraq’s internally displaced from getting registered and recognized and in turn, tapping into Iraqi government assistance when it is available. IRC legal teams help displaced Iraqis restore lost documents. Without documentation, Iraqis are unable to apply for jobs, enroll children in school, reclaim property, obtain medical care and register for critical services, like foodrations.
The Iraqi government is working to overcome obstacles, step up assistance for displaced citizens and coordinate with the United Nations and local and international relief agencies to improve the quality of life for Iraqis. There are many successful programs that aremaking an impact. But progress has been slow and need far outweighs capacity.
“As U.S. troops depart and Iraq fades from the media spotlight, we call on the international community not to abandon vulnerable Iraqis, especially countries whose military intervention was a cause of the displacement crisis,” says Young. “The Iraqi government has made great strides in developing a strategy to address the needs of the displaced and should bring its own resources to bear, but it will require ongoing and intensive support.”
The International Rescue Committee urges the following:
Remove unnecessary hurdles to U.S. resettlement: Thorough security checks are necessary but dysfunction in the screening process is handicapping lifesaving programs. The Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and all the other agencies involved must vastly improve coordination to ensure efficient and accurate security reviews and eliminate duplicative checks. In light of current delays, validation periods for certain security clearances and other aspects of processing must be extended. Far more transparency is required and applicants must have the right to appeal cryptic denials. The U.S. should aim to return to 2010 Iraqi admissions levels.
Develop contingency plans for U.S.-affiliated and other vulnerable Iraqis: There must be contingency plans in place to protect Iraqis affiliated with the U.S. mission, particularly if they are targeted on a larger scale following the U.S. troop withdrawal. The U.S. should show the same commitment it did to South Vietnamese allies who were airlifted out of danger by the tens of thousands after the Vietnam War, and follow the lead of coalition partners who offered asylum to Iraqi staff as they pulled out. The U.S. must also coordinate with authorities in Iraq and regional countries hosting Iraqi refugees to develop emergency response plans in the event deteriorating security causes more displacement and a larger humanitarian crisis. Plans also must be considered should large numbers of Iraqi refugees suddenly flee an increasingly violent Syria.
Support Iraq’s strategy for the displaced: The Iraqi government is in the final stages of developing a comprehensive strategy to address the displacement crisis, including plans for the return and reintegration of refugees, land allocation and public assistance programs. The U.S. government should work with other donor nations and the UN to help Iraq complete the plan and support its implementation. The U.S. government must also urge Iraq to prioritize the development of long-term shelter options and to freeze evictions of displaced people.
Boost humanitarian assistance: U.S. government funding has contributed to successful aid programs for Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan and needed programs for vulnerable internally displaced Iraqis. But ongoing support to Iraq and countries hosting refugees is essential if Iraqis are to see real improvement in the quality of their lives. A tiny fraction of the U.S. military budget in Iraq, re-directed to support needed programs to aid and protect vulnerable refugees, displaced persons and returnees, would go a long way in meeting critical needs and creating a more stable Iraq and region.
Commit to long-term aid and resettlement: Donor countries should commit to addressing the displacement crisis with immediate and long-term assistance for vulnerable and displaced Iraqis. States that have played an active military role in Iraq have a particular responsibility to contribute funding to aid those affected by the conflict and diplomacy to support durable solutions. These countries should also open their doors to Iraqi refugees whose only option is resettlement in a third country. The United States should be offering sanctuary to many more Iraqi refugees, but it should not be doing this alone.
Stop deportations: A growing number of Iraqis are being deported and returned to Iraq, by European nations in particular. Some returned Iraqis, includingreligious and ethnic minorities, have been sent back to the volatile places they fled, where sectarian violence still simmers and where their lives are at risk.
Government of Iraq
Finalize action plan for the displaced: The Iraqi government should work with Iraqi civil society, representatives of displaced communities and other international actors to expeditiously complete a strategy that maps out durable solutions for displaced Iraqis. The strategy should include short-term and long-term land allocation initiatives and steps to address immediate and long-term health, education, water and livelihoods needs.
Cease evictions: The government should reinstate a formal stay of Order 440 to prevent the evictions of displaced families from state property. Forced evictions of displaced people are not solving the problem, only shifting it to other locations and imposing increased trauma and stress on families forced to move multiple times.
Register and document displaced Iraqis: Bureaucratic red tape is preventing many displaced Iraqis from getting help and accessing basic services. The process of registering for benefits and restoring the documents needed to claim them must be simplified and streamlined so that needy people can get the assistance they deserve.
About the International Rescue Committee: A global leader in humanitarian assistance, the International Rescue Committee works in more than 40 countries offeringhelp and hope to refugees and others uprooted by disaster, conflict and oppression. During crises, IRC teams provide health care, shelter, clean water, sanitation, learning programs for children and special aid for women. As emergencies subside, the IRC stays to revive livelihoods and help shattered communities recover and rebuild. The IRC also helps resettle refugees given sanctuary in the United States. A tireless advocate for the most vulnerable, the IRC is committed to restoring hope, dignity and opportunity. For more information visit www.rescue.org
IRC Programs in Iraq and Jordan: The IRC has provided humanitarian aid in Iraq on and off since 2003 and today assists tens of thousands of people in 12 provinces. IRC teams currently rebuild and expand schools, train teachers, teach marketable skills to youth, offer targeted health, legal and psychosocial services to women, provide a range of legal assistance to returnees and displaced persons, improve water and sanitation facilities, and track forced returns at borders. The IRC launched programs for Iraqi refugees in Jordan in 2007 with informal education projects and mental health support. Today the program focuses on helping local organizations prevent and respond to violence against women.