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Iraq’s Unfinished Story—Millions of Refugees Abandoned by U.S.

Posted: Jan 06, 2012

Each time Uncle Sam ventures abroad he leaves an unfinished story, and nowhere is it most unfinished than the story of Iraq, where despite flowery speeches regarding freedom and sovereignty by the Obama administration, despite assurances that tyranny has been "cast aside," the tragedy caused by the United States invasion, occupation and inevitable abandonment is on an epic proportion.

Never mind that sectarian violence continues unabated and much of the populace remains mired in poverty, and that there's a distinct possibility that the country is on its way to becoming a failed state if the Sunnis and Shiites cannot find a way to collectively govern.

The most unfinished story, however, is the population that the war has displaced. Whether tyranny has been cast aside is questionable, but certainly cast aside are the people of Iraq. They have been displaced both internally and internationally and are now imperiled by the sin of our omission.

According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) there are 1.7 million Iraqis living as internally displaced refugees, while more than 2 million others have fled across the border to Syria, Egypt, Jordan and other countries.

A Theme of Betrayal

If the unfinished story has a theme, then it is surely betrayal. It is a painful lesson previous allies of the United States have learned, a bitter pill to swallow.

Uncle Sam left unwanted children in Vietnam known as con lai – mixed-race children -- and it took years for them to come to the U.S., years in which many lived as abused and abandoned street children, as enemies of a society ashamed of their appearance and what they represented -- children of the enemy.

Uncle Sam also left tens of thousands of South Vietnamese allies to languish in re-education camps. And what of the thousands of Hmong fighters trained by the CIA during the Vietnam War to fight against communist guerrillas? They were abandoned in the jungle to fend for themselves against a government that aimed to eradicate them. Those who managed to escape to Thailand in recent times were told that it's too late -- they no longer qualify as refugees.

"The current exodus [from Iraq] is the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since the displacement of Palestinians following the creation of Israel in 1948," according to the office of the UNHCR.

Although some have managed to integrate into host countries, the majority are destitute. Desperate to feed their family, many women have resorted to prostitution or become indentured servants.

At the height of the U.S. occupation, as fighting worsened, many crossed the borders seeking safety. Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia all saw a rise in Iraqi refugees. Syria in particular, which shares a 450-mile border with Iraq, bore the brunt of the mass exodus. Syrian officials estimate more than 700,000 Iraqis of all stripes are now living inside their country. Nearly half of the children receive no schooling.

Even worse, now that Syria itself has turned into a battlefield, the Iraqi refugees seeking safety there find themselves ironically in another version of Iraq and are searching for a new haven. Many fail to do so.

Only a Trickle Allowed in U.S.

The number of refugees immigrating to the United States is at a trickle in comparison. So far only 58,811 Iraqis have been granted refugee status here. Indeed, if the U.S. has won for Iraq its freedom and democracy, as our government claims, why—goes the logic--should we accept refugees?

In the U.S., Homeland Security has enhanced its bureaucratic procedures, squeezing the immigration process so tightly that tens of thousands of those who qualify to come to the United States are languishing instead either in Iraq or elsewhere.

Their lives are exponentially endangered now that U.S. forces have pulled out. Various insurgent groups have targeted those working as interpreters for the U.S. and British armies or for foreign journalists--not to mention those hired by American companies doing reconstruction or working in the Green Zone.

"The Iraqis who stood with us are being targeted for assassination, yet our doors are shut. That is not how we treat our friends," President Obama said while campaigning for the White House in 2008. That same year Congress passed a bill for special immigration visas to be issued for 25,000, although so far only 3,415 have been processed.

"We're not meeting our basic obligation to the Iraqis, who've been imperiled because they worked for the U.S. government," noted Kirk W. Johnson in a New York Times article four years ago. Johnson, who worked for the United States Agency for International Development in Falluja in 2005, observed that, "We could not have functioned without their hard work, and it's shameful that we've nothing to offer them in their bleakest hour."

More recently he noted in the Times [http://nyti.ms/sypKaG] that “our policy in the final weeks of this war is as simple as it is shameful: Submit your paperwork and wait.”

Huddled Masses vs. National Interests

Do we have a moral obligation to those whose lives are endangered by their relationship with us, lives imperiled due to our intervention in Iraq? If the answer is no, then our Afghan partners might do well to consider other options and we should also ask what America really stands for.

If the answer is no, the United States might consider removing the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty on which we boast, "Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." The new one should read, "Nations have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies. Only permanent interests."

NAM editor Andrew Lam is author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" and "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres." His next book, Birds of Paradise, is due out in 2013. 

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