With the Senate Judiciary Committee holding hearings today on the plight of Iraqi refugees, Human Rights Watch called upon the Bush administration to share the responsibility of protecting refugees fleeing the war in Iraq. The administration should significantly increase the number of Iraqi refugees it will resettle this year and contribute quickly and generously to the UN refugee agency’s appeal for financial assistance, Human Rights Watch said.
Jordan has shut its border to Iraqi men between the ages of 17 and 35, and a growing number of Palestinian refugees trying to flee Iraq are currently stranded at Syria’s border. Human Rights Watch said that Jordan and Syria are violating on a daily basis the most fundamental principle of refugee protection – nonrefoulement, which prohibits the return of refugees to persecution or serious harm.
“The cost to the United States of helping Iraqi refugees in the region is modest but it’s the difference between life and death for hundreds of thousands,” said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch and author of a 106-page report on the plight of Iraqi refugees, “The Silent Treatment: Fleeing Iraq, Surviving in Jordan.” “Washington is spending about $2 billion per week on the war in Iraq, but has barely begun to address the human fallout from the war,” he said.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is appealing for $60 million to confront the Iraqi refugee crisis in 2007. Last year, the US provided 27 percent of the $29 million UNHCR appeal. The refugee agency received only $14 million in new funding. It began staff cutbacks in the Middle East as a result of budget shortfalls at a time when the number of refugees was growing precipitously. Jordan and Syria’s social systems are under considerable strain because of the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees, and both governments need support to cope with a crisis not of their making.
There are estimated to be up to 2 million Iraqi refugees in the region. Yet, US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Ellen Sauerbrey reported to the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 27, 2006 that the United States would resettle 500 Iraqi refugees in fiscal year 2006 (it actually only resettled 202). She asked for only 500 additional refugee slots in 2007 for the entire Middle East and South Asia, which would also include Afghan and Iranian refugee admissions, among others.
The United States needs to respond quickly and generously to UNHCR’s current appeal. It should also use its authorized reserve of refugee resettlement slots to admit as many as 20,000 Iraqi refugees this year, including people who have been persecuted because of their associations with the United States.
“The money needed to care for Iraqi refugees in the Middle East is a tiny fraction of what the US spends on the war,” said Frelick. “It will be money well spent if it convinces Jordan, Syria and other neighboring states to keep their borders open to Iraqi refugees fleeing mortal danger.”