Testimony of Bill Frelick before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus
November 15, 2007

Bill Frelick delivered testimony at the November 15, 2007, member briefing of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. The briefing updated Caucus members on the situation of the estimated 4.4 million Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons in the region.

I would like first to provide a brief overview of recent developments with regard to the 4.4 million estimated Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons in the region and then address the question of the adequacy of the U.S. response and make recommendations for a more creative and proactive initiative that needs to be taken in order to provide asylum to some of the world’s most desperate refugees.

We are particularly alarmed by Syria’s decision this past month to close its borders to Iraqi refugees. Now only Iraqis with advance permission, usually for reasons of commerce, are allowed to enter. Despite hosting the largest number of Iraqi refugees (an estimated 1.5 million), Syria had kept its border open long after Jordan and other neighbors had closed theirs to all but a lucky few.

The Syrian government explicitly cited as its reason for shutting the door on Iraqi refugees the lack of international support. “No one in the international community is helping us,” a Syrian government spokesman told the Financial Times. “The Syrian government can no longer shoulder the responsibility alone.”

Jordan closed its doors to Iraqi refugees earlier this year. Jordan and Syria together host more than 90 percent of Iraqi refugees. Now that both have closed their doors, the situation is looking especially bleak for today’s and tomorrow’s victims of war and human rights abuse inside Iraq who will have no place to seek asylum outside their country.

Internal escape routes for the displaced are also increasingly being blocked. At this time, 10 of 18 Iraqi governorates are restricting entry of internally displace persons (Babylon, Basra, Dahuk, Erbil, Kerbala, Muthanna, Najaf, Qadissiya, Sulaymaniyah, and Thi Qar). Those not restricting entry, such as Baghdad, Anbar, and Diyala, are the governorates from which the internally displaced are leaving.

This means that the displaced increasingly are being concentrated in the center of Iraq, the same area that remains the most dangerous and inaccessible for humanitarian assistance. In other words, the worst of the humanitarian emergency affects people whom we don’t see and cannot reach. And, of equal importance, people who are desperate to flee threats to their very lives now have nowhere to go.

Under such circumstances, the need to convince Jordan and Syria to reopen their doors rises to the level of a moral imperative.

So, what is the United States doing?

Let’s start with refugee resettlement. The State Department issued a fact sheet on November 9 that speaks of an eight-fold increase in the number of arrivals from FY 2006 to FY 2007. This progress is less impressive if looked at as a reflection of the wholly inadequate response to the crisis in FY 2006 when only 202 Iraqi refugees were admitted to the United States.

But we do welcome the progress, modest though it may be, that has been made. We welcome Ambassador James Foley’s visit to Syria and Syria’s announcement last week that it has agreed to allow Department of Homeland Security officials to conduct interviews for Iraqis identified for possible resettlement to the United States. Last year, the United States resettled 1,608 Iraqis, of whom only 242 were admitted from Syria, an infinitesimal number from the Syrian perspective.

The question now must be asked: Is the FY 2008 U.S. resettlement goal of 12,000 Iraqi refugee admissions adequate and reasonable? First, it is not entirely clear that a stated U.S. resettlement goal is a reliable indicator of actual admissions. Last year, the United States did not even admit one-quarter of its stated goal to resettle 7,000 Iraqi refugees in 2007. But, assuming that 12,000 will be admitted, what impact is that likely to have in terms of preserving asylum in the region? To put it in perspective, 12,000 is the number of Iraqi refugees that typically entered Syria every six days in 2006. From the Syrian and Jordanian perspective, U.S. resettlement of 12,000 refugees in 2008 makes virtually no impact.

The Bush Administration has cited heightened security protocols as the reason for its slowness in processing Iraqi refugees, procedures U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has criticized as unwieldy and under-resourced. We hope that Ambassador Foley will take seriously Ambassador Crocker’s criticisms and adopt some of the suggestions he, nongovernmental organizations, and Congress have put forward to expedite the processing of Iraqi refugees.

The United States can and should resettle more Iraqi refugees. This is not just a matter of technical fixes, though. President Bush personally should take the step of welcoming Iraqi refugees to the United States, particularly those who put their lives on the line to support American troops. American presidents have, as Theodore Roosevelt famously characterized it, the ultimate “bully pulpit” from which to provide moral leadership. George Washington declared that the United States should be “an asylum to the oppressed and needy of the earth.” Every modern president until now has used the Presidency not only to lead Americans in welcoming refugees, but has backed up his word by bringing to this country many of the world’s most vulnerable refugees, many of whom put their lives on the line in solidarity with American goals and values.

Gerald Ford visited the Vietnamese refugees that he brought to Fort Chaffee, Georgia. Jimmy Carter pledged that America would “continue to provide an open heart and open arms to refugees seeking freedom.” Ronald Reagan frequently told the story of the Vietnamese boat refugee who looked up to his rescuer saying, “Hello, American sailor, hello, freedom man,” and how much he identified with that sailor. The president’s father, George H. W. Bush, ordered U.S. troops to intervene on behalf of forcibly displaced people in Somalia and northern Iraq. His son, however, has no record in words or deeds to indicate that he personally has been affected by refugees in the ways that other presidents clearly have, and he has not used the bully pulpit to convince Americans to open their hearts and their arms to these refugees in particular.

But the solution to this problem involves more than just bringing refugees to the United States. Given the numbers, as well as the myriad obstacles to resettling Iraqi refugees in the United States, the U.S. should also try other, more creative approaches to help the refugees and relieve the burden on neighboring countries. In particular, the U.S. should work with the Arab League, the European Union, and other partners to establish a voluntary resettlement program to relocate hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees from Syria and Jordan to other countries in the region, such as Egypt, Sudan, and Yemen. Such a program would provide cash-strapped temporary host countries per capita grants and other financial incentives to build their infrastructures and accommodate the refugees until they can go home safely. Without something to offer them in return, poorer countries in the region are unlikely to make any resettlement offers. But unless the burden of hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees can be more equitably shared, Syria and Jordan will not reopen their doors to Iraqi refugees.

But such an initiative cannot succeed unless the United States is willing to take the lead in footing the bill.

The Bush Administration has boosted its 2008 emergency request to fund the Iraq and Afghan wars to $196.4 billion, bringing the total price tag to more than $800 billion. Less than one-fifth of 1 percent of that request, $240 million—less than the amount the U.S. spends each day to wage the war—is slated for emergency relief, basic health services and education for the 4.4 million Iraqis who have been forced from their homes.

While the Administration’s war spending could be characterized as profligate, it has been pinching pennies when it comes to meeting the war’s human costs. Its humanitarian response has not only been stingy, but prosaic. Providing basic relief, while necessary, is not sufficient.

The U.S. government needs to acknowledge that it has a particular responsibility toward Iraqi refugees because of its military intervention in Iraq. The usual formulas for international burden sharing do not apply because other governments see the Iraq war as having been a largely unilateral undertaking and have not (and will not) come forward with adequate contributions to meet the humanitarian emergency. Washington must shelve its self-imposed 30 percent limit on U.S. contributions to U.N. humanitarian appeals for these refugees.

Congress should not only provide the necessary funding to meet humanitarian needs, but also provide direction to the Administration how to preserve asylum in the region. The conferees who will reconcile the Senate and House versions of the Defense Department Authorization bill, have such an opportunity. The legislation includes some important technical fixes, but the final bill should also recognize that U.S. resettlement is unlikely to make more than a small dent on the refugee burden being shouldered by Iraq’s neighbors and direct the Secretary of State to consult with other countries on resettlement and develop mechanisms to help host countries cope with the refugee crisis.

Congress needs to think more proactively about the refugee crisis, advise Secretary Rice how to tackle this problem, and give her the tools to do so. It should provide the outline of a plan—such as the one I have suggested above—to relieve Jordan and Syria of some of the enormous burden they are shouldering that can only be achieved through a massive regional resettlement program.

Without such a program, Jordan’s and Syria’s borders will remain closed, more refugees will be forced back, and the present emergency could well escalate into a full-fledged disaster. The Congress needs not only to present the Administration with a plan for managing the refugee crisis, but also with the funds that go well beyond the minimal care and feeding of refugees and the resettlement of a relative handful of refugees with particularly strong U.S. ties. Bandaid assistance and token resettlement might make Americans feel less guilty about the destruction and suffering this war has caused, but it will not be sufficient to make a difference in saving the lives of the vast majority of innocent civilians whose lives are still at risk.

Whatever it decides to do on Bush’s war spending request, Congress needs to include substantially more money to make any impact on the refugee crisis. Suffice it to say that the $240 million in the Administration request is wholly inadequate. Congress should include substantially more assistance to achieve these humanitarian objectives. It might take another $1 billion. But think about it. That is less than half of what the U.S. has been spending every week to wage this war. The human costs of the war are, of course, incalculable. But in looking ahead, the United States needs to spend money to save lives where it can and prevent further resentment and destabilization that could bring far greater costs in the years to come.

Frelick is the Refugee Policy Director for Human Rights Watch and author of Iraq: From a Flood to a Trickle: Neighboring States Stop Iraqis Fleeing War and Persecution and The Silent Treatment: Fleeing Iraq, Surviving in Jordan.