12-9-2011By Ruthie Epstein
Researcher & Advocate, Refugee Protection Program
Yesterday, two major items regarding the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq made the news, and together they created a profound cognitive dissonance.
First, the White House announced that President Obama will deliver a major speech about the end of the war at Fort Bragg next Wednesday. The Wall Street Journal reported that, according to the announcement, “The president will speak about the enormous sacrifices and achievements of the brave Americans who served in the Iraq War, and he will speak about the extraordinary milestone of bringing the war in Iraq to an end.”
Second, the Pentagon gave what will likely be its final formal press briefing from Baghdad. The most striking comments from Deputy Commanding General, U.S. Forces-Iraq, Lt. Gen. Frank G. Helmick:
Are the Iraqi security forces ready?… Since 2010, the Iraqis have been in the lead in operations for the internal defense of their country. There are challenges: external security threats, Iranian-backed militias, al-Qaida, other violent extremist organizations; that the Iraqis must continue to put constant pressure on those groups. Lingering ethnic tensions; Sunni-Shia, Arab-Kurd relations aren’t what they need to be, and the Iraqis continue to work on that as well. And the government still is not completely formed. As you know, the elections occurred in March of 2010, and we still do not have a permanent minister of defense or a minister of the interior. The prime minister is heading up both of those organizations. We do have an acting minister of defense. And then there are some — still some security gaps that exist: their air sovereignty, their air defense capability, the ability to protect the two oil platforms, and then the ability to do combined arms operations for an external defense, synchronizing their infantry with their armor, with their artillery, with their engineers. They’re not quite there with that capability.
On the one hand, the government is proudly proclaiming the end of the war. On the other, the assessment of Iraq’s internal and external security situation remains bleak. Once the troop withdrawal – scheduled for December 31 – is complete, it’s anyone’s guess how safe Iraq will be for its own people. A report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction concluded in July that “Iraq remains an extraordinarily dangerous place to work,” and that it is “less safe… than 12 months ago.”
Since the war began in 2003, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have fled the country, to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey, and two million more have been internally displaced. Iraqis who worked with the U.S. government or military were among those groups targeted with harassment, violence, or murder – along with journalists, scholars, religious minorities, LGBTI people, and tens of thousands of others. In 2007, Human Rights First began working to press the U.S. government to provide safety to the most vulnerable of Iraqi refugees displaced by the war, arguing that the United States’ particular role in starting the war created a clear moral obligation to address the refugee crisis that ensued.
After a shamefully slow start, the U.S. government set up a major resettlement infrastructure in the region. And after Congress instructed the government to establish a Special Immigrant Visa program for U.S.-affiliated Iraqis in the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, signed into law by President Bush in 2008, this particular group had access to an additional avenue of relief. These developments grew from bipartisan efforts in Congress, led by the late Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), long a champion for refugees, and then-Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR). The United States has resettled 62,547 Iraqi men, women, and children through the resettlement program (as of November 30). An additional 5,719 U.S.-affiliated Iraqis and their families have received visas through to United States through the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program (as of September 30). We assessed the SIV and refugee programs in two reports: “Promises to the Persecuted: The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act” (April 2009) and “Living in Limbo: Iraqi Refugees and U.S. Resettlement” (December 2010). We made frank recommendations for improvement to the government but also recognized the significant progress made since 2006 in the Iraqi resettlement program.
That progress does not, however, mean that the U.S. role in refugee protection for Iraqis is over. Today, 18,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria are in the pipeline for resettlement to the United States, and 39,000 more are awaiting refugee processing inside Iraq. According to the UN refugee agency, “As of October 2011, there were more than 25,000 Iraqis who had passed their DHS interview.” This means that the U.S. government has already decided that these 25,000 individuals meet the legal definition of a refugee. Almost all of them, though, still await their final security clearances, which are significantly backlogged – and in the meantime, these men, women, and children remain in Iraq or neighboring countries, lacking any information about their future, and often struggling to survive without work, or facing ongoing danger to their physical safety. Lt. Gen. Helmick’s remarks this week make it clear that Iraq is still not safe.
Human Rights First urges the U.S. government not to abandon the tens of thousands of vulnerable Iraqis displaced by the war, and to honor its commitments to refugee protection more broadly. Specifically, we urge the government to:
- Develop and implement an emergency resettlement procedure for refugees facing imminent danger. The Department of State should continue the efforts it has already begun to work with other relevant federal agencies to develop and implement a formal and transparent resettlement procedure for refugees who face emergency or urgent circumstances. This procedure should enable resettlement to take place within a set time period, and facilitate transfers of refugee cases to UNHCR’s Emergency Transit Centers when appropriate.
- Improve the timeliness of resettlement processing, including through properly resourcing and addressing unnecessary extended delays in the security clearance process. Effective and accurate background security checks are an essential component of any admissions program, and they are necessary to protect the American people as well as the refugee system itself. However, background check processes need to be adequately staffed, coordinated and prioritized in order to ensure they are conducted in a timely and effective manner – and senior government officials need to make sure this coordination and prioritization actually happens. The National Security Council should, together with the Departments of State, Justice, Homeland Security and intelligence agencies, improve the interagency security clearance procedure – including by ensuring adequate staffing, coordination and prioritization – to enable security checks for refugees and U.S.-affiliated Iraqis to be completed accurately and without unnecessary delay.
- Support protection of Iraqi refugees in the Middle East, including by providing humanitarian assistance to host countries, and encourage the government of Iraq to take concrete steps to improve the situation for returnees and displaced persons inside Iraq.
Wars do – ostensibly – have start dates and end dates. Refugee protection does not. The Iraqi refugee crisis will not be over on December 31. As President Obama affirmed in 2009 at Camp Lejeune, the United States has “a strategic interest – and a moral responsibility” – not to walk away.