Skip to main content

Talk to Syria for the Sake of Iraqi Refugees

Published in: The Huffington Post

This week, the last door slammed shut on Iraqi refugees desperate to flee for their lives. Syria, which had kept its border open long after Jordan and other neighbors had closed theirs to all but a lucky few, has now also imposed a strict visa regime for Iraqis, and the latest reports from the border indicate that the refugee flow has stopped.

The Syrian government explicitly cited as its reason for shutting the door 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."

The door has no chance of reopening unless the United States can put aside some of its differences with Syria for the sake of the refugees. Since Syria remains on the US list as a state sponsor of terrorism, Washington will not provide any direct assistance. But Washington's failure to provide support for Iraqi refugees in Syria has only punished the refugees, not the Syrian government. It has also robbed the United States of the flexibility to support Syria when it was doing the right thing by allowing refugees in. The US policy of "all stick and no carrot" has left Syria with virtually no international support for its enormous refugee burden, and has now led it to block the last exit for Iraqis desperately fleeing violence.

The United States spends an estimated $2 billion per week to wage the war in Iraq; in contrast, total U.S. spending on the humanitarian needs of 2.2 million Iraqi refugees and 2.2 million internally displaced people this year stands at $197 million. That needs to change.

First, the US needs to acknowledge that it has a particular responsibility toward Iraqi refugees because of its military intervention in Iraq. Washington must shelve its self-imposed 30 percent limit on US contributions to UN humanitarian appeals for these refugees. By increasing its support for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies, the US would be able to provide more support for Iraqi refugees in Syria, something that it cannot now do bilaterally.

In the upcoming supplemental appropriation for the war in Iraq, Congress should include substantially more assistance for Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons than the paltry $35 million (less than $9 per Iraqi refugee and displaced person) that the Bush administration has requested. It should also earmark funding for nongovernmental organizations to operate projects in Syria as a way of emphasizing the need not to punish Iraqi refugees simply for being in Syria and to encourage Syria to reverse its policy and once again welcome the refugees.

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. The United States admitted only 1,608 (242 from Syria) this fiscal year -- an annual admission figure from the entire region that falls short of the daily influx of 2,000 Iraqi refugees into Syria. U.S. resettlement doesn't begin to address the crisis facing Syria, Jordan, and other countries in the region.

In a September 7 cable, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker complained that the slow pace of US refugee resettlement was contributing to a "deteriorating protection environment" in neighboring countries. While Crocker's suggestions for speeding up US refugee processing should be adopted, the U.S. should also try other, more creative approaches to help the overwhelming majority of refugees who will never be resettled here.

The US 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 host countries with financial incentives through a combination of per capita cash grants and support to develop health, educational, and housing-related infrastructures that would benefit the local populations while accommodating the refugees until they can go home safely.

When General David Petraeus addressed the U.S. Congress he warned that a rapid troop withdrawal would result in "a further humanitarian disaster." This remark, taken together with Ambassador's Crocker's cable, suggests that a humanitarian disaster now exists, that the U.S. response has been inadequate, and that it could get much worse.

Whatever its military policy in Iraq, the United States can no longer ignore this humanitarian crisis. Averting "a further humanitarian disaster" will require active engagement with other countries in the region as well as massive, proactive and, yes, costly assistance. This must be recognized, finally, as the unavoidable cost of this war.

Bill Frelick is refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.