The American flag is cased, but Iraq remains a mess

The primetime news in the US and Europe has these past few days featured the rhetorical skills of Barack Obama exercised in front of American troops returning from Iraq, and today the lowering of the Stars and Stripes in Baghdad. So that’s it, say the politicians; the war is over, and it’s all done and dusted. Those who supported the war from the beginning, and others who opposed the military-assisted liberation of Iraq from Ba’athist dictatorship, are united in declaring the effort a partial success at least, worth the cost in “blood and dollars”.

That is also my view, for what it’s worth, but the struggle continues, and I’m uneasy with all this political account settling over the war. So too is the International Rescue Committee, concerned as it is with the world’s refugees and others uprooted by disaster, conflict and oppression.

A press release sent to me yesterday by the IRC details the crisis left behind by the US and its military and state-building partners in Iraq, with an estimated three million Iraqis displaced, and tens of thousands in danger owing to their cooperation with the occupation forces.

“The United States may be ending its military mission in Iraq, but it still has a responsibility to aid Iraqis uprooted by the war it started and to protect the most vulnerable, especially those who put their lives in jeopardy to help America,” says Bob Carey, the International Rescue Committee’s leading resettlement policy expert.

Taking the American component of the occupation alone, some 70,000 Iraqis worked for the US military, government and private contractors. As a result, they and their families are threatened, harassed, kidnapped and killed by insurgent groups and criminal opportunists. And then there are Iraq’s religious, ethnic and political minorities, targeted with violence and persecution. Will they be forgotten by the withdrawing occupiers?

The US has a number of of programmes in place to help those who helped them during the war and its aftermath, but the programmes are mired in bureaucratic delays. For example, in 2008 Congress passed legislation that allows for 20,000 expedited Special Immigrant Visas for vulnerable Iraqis, but to date fewer than 3,000 have been issued, and thousands of applications remain pending. There is an even larger bottleneck when it comes to the US Refugee Resettlement Program.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis are looking to resettle in the US and elsewhere, but most wish to stay in the region. The UN estimates that 1.3 million Iraqi citizens are displaced inside Iraq, and 1.6 million exiled in nearby countries. What future for them? They are discriminated against in their places of refuge, and their property in Iraq has been appropriated by others.

The Iraqi government’s own aid programmes are said to be working to a degree, but bureaucratic problems are slowing the efforts of state and voluntary agencies. One particular issue is lost or missing documentation, without which Iraqis are unable to apply for jobs, enrol their children in school, reclaim property, obtain medical care and register for other vital services.

“As US troops depart and Iraq fades from the media spotlight, we call on the international community not to abandon vulnerable Iraqis, especially countries whose military intervention was a cause of the displacement crisis,” says Mike Young, who oversees the IRC’s relief programmes in the Middle East and Africa. “The Iraqi government has made great strides in developing a strategy to address the needs of the displaced and should bring its own resources to bear, but it will require ongoing and intensive support.”

The IRC has issued a call to the US Government and others, with specific policy and practical changes that are needed to deal with the problems outlined above. I reproduce this verbatim from the press release…

US Government

Remove unnecessary hurdles to U.S. resettlement:  Thorough security checks are necessary but dysfunction in the screening process is handicapping lifesaving programs. The Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and all the other agencies involved must vastly improve coordination to ensure efficient and accurate security reviews and eliminate duplicative checks. In light of current delays, validation periods for certain security clearances and other aspects of processing must be extended. Far more transparency is required and applicants must have the right to appeal cryptic denials. The U.S. should aim to return to 2010 Iraqi admissions levels.

Develop contingency plans for U.S.-affiliated and other vulnerable Iraqis: There must be contingency plans in place to protect Iraqis affiliated with the U.S. mission, particularly if they are targeted on a larger scale following the U.S. troop withdrawal. The U.S. should show the same commitment it did to South Vietnamese allies who were airlifted out of danger by the tens of thousands after the Vietnam War, and follow the lead of coalition partners who offered asylum to Iraqi staff as they pulled out. The U.S. must also coordinate with authorities in Iraq and regional countries hosting Iraqi refugees to develop emergency response plans in the event deteriorating security causes more displacement and a larger humanitarian crisis.  Plans also must be considered should large numbers of Iraqi refugees suddenly flee an increasingly violent Syria.

Support Iraq’s strategy for the displaced: The Iraqi government is in the final stages of developing a comprehensive strategy to address the displacement crisis, including plans for the return and reintegration of refugees, land allocation and public assistance programs. The U.S. Government should work with other donor nations and the UN to help Iraq complete the plan and support its implementation. The U.S. government must also urge Iraq to prioritize the development of long-term shelter options and to freeze evictions of displaced people. 

Boost humanitarian assistance: U.S. government funding has contributed to successful aid programs for Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan and needed programs for vulnerable internally displaced Iraqis. But ongoing support to Iraq and countries hosting refugees is essential if Iraqis are to see real improvement in the quality of their lives. A tiny fraction of the U.S. military budget in Iraq, re-directed to support needed programs to aid and protect vulnerable refugees, displaced persons and returnees, would go a long way in meeting critical needs and creating a more stable Iraq and region.

Donor Countries

Commit to long-term aid and resettlement: Donor countries should commit to addressing the displacement crisis with immediate and long-term assistance for vulnerable and displaced Iraqis.  States that have played an active military role in Iraq have a particular responsibility to contribute funding to aid those affected by the conflict and diplomacy to support durable solutions.  These countries should also open their doors to Iraqi refugees whose only option is resettlement in a third country.  The United States should be offering sanctuary to many more Iraqi refugees, but it should not be doing this alone.

Stop deportations: A growing number of Iraqis are being deported and returned to Iraq, by European nations in particular. Some returned Iraqis, including religious and ethnic minorities, have been sent back to the volatile places they fled, where sectarian violence still simmers and where their lives are at risk. 

Government of Iraq

Finalize action plan for the displaced: The Iraqi government should work with Iraqi civil society, representatives of displaced communities and other international actors to expeditiously complete a strategy that maps out durable solutions for displaced Iraqis. The strategy should include short-term and long-term land allocation initiatives and steps to address immediate and long-term health, education, water and livelihoods needs.

Cease evictions: The government should reinstate a formal stay of Order 440 to prevent the evictions of displaced families from state property. Forced evictions of displaced people are not solving the problem, only shifting it to other locations and imposing increased trauma and stress on families forced to move multiple times.

Register and document displaced Iraqis: Bureaucratic red tape is preventing many displaced

Iraqis from getting help and accessing basic services. The process of registering for benefits and restoring the documents needed to claim them must be simplified and streamlined so that needy people can get the assistance they deserve.

To this I would add that the organisations of civil society in the western world also have a role to play in supporting their brothers and sisters in Iraq. One distinguishing feature of open, democratic societies is freely formed links between individuals and community groups across state borders. Such free association can take many forms, including formal town twinning arrangements and exchange visits, and more informal sharing between clubs comprising of fans of facial hair and tiddlywinks. It takes all sorts to make a society, and they all matter.