Since World War II, American actions have unintentionally created three huge refugee crises: the Indochinese in Southeast Asia, the Kurds of northern Iraq and now a third: the Iraqis displaced by today's war. Contrast how we have handled them.
In the 1970s and 1980s, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, 2 million Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians fled violence, starvation and political repression to seek refuge in Thailand and other countries in the region. To address the crisis, the U.S. promoted two high-level U.N.-sponsored international conferences on this humanitarian disaster. In addition to providing significant economic assistance to refugees and to the countries housing them, American policymakers also resettled about 1.2 million Indochinese refugees in the U.S., an extraordinary act.
In 1991, after the Persian Gulf War, half a million Kurds, escaping Saddam Hussein's wrath for revolting against him with U.S. encouragement, fled to the mountainous border with Turkey, where they languished, while another million went to camps in Iran. The U.S. and its allies warned Saddam to back off and quickly returned the Kurds to northern Iraq, where they were protected militarily under a no-fly zone, allowing the Kurds to build a now thriving Iraqi Kurdistan.
What of today's fleeing Iraqi citizens? Our war has displaced 4 million Iraqis since 2003, including 2 million now living beyond its borders in tough conditions. Yet we have allowed this vast, potentially destabilizing refugee burden to be borne mostly by Syria and Jordan. We have provided some aid to host countries but none to Syria, and we have allowed only a trickle of Iraqis (fewer than 10,000 so far) to resettle in the U.S. far fewer than have been taken in by Sweden.
For five years, the U.S. has failed to make Iraq's refugee exodus a focus of national or international attention. The U.S. has allowed the crisis to be managed by concerned but second-tier American officials, and it has been slow to provide financial assistance. This year's aid, the most generous so far, will surpass $200 million but it is still only a quarter of what is needed, relief agencies say. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees complained last month that he would run out of funds in August.
What explains the differing responses to these crises? A few reflections:
• White House leadership is crucial. Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush got personally involved in mobilizing the American government and public to address the earlier refugee crises. Carter made the difficult political decision to allow a vast number of refugees into the country. This time around, there has been little presidential involvement.
• Guilt was an underlying factor in previous crises. We knew we would not return militarily to Indochina to save the people we had deserted, but at the same time we understood that we were responsible for their plight, and we sought ways to help. Similarly, the U.S. had encouraged Iraq's Kurds to rebel in 1991, and, after that, failure to help the Kurdish refugees (or Turkey, which had supported our efforts in the Gulf War) would have amounted to perfidy. The current Bush White House, by contrast, appears to be without guilt or remorse.
• The media, except for a few stray reporters, have been uninterested in the story of the refugees this time. Partly that is because, unlike, say, Darfur, where overcrowded, grim refugee camps can be graphically portrayed, Iraqi refugees generally live in crowded quarters in the cities of Syria and Jordan, surviving on inadequate international handouts, illegal labor or declining savings but without much visual squalor to stir sympathy.
Of course, Sept. 11, 2001, changed our national consciousness as well. We became less welcoming of outsiders in general and more suspicious of Arabs and Muslims in particular.
To be fair, the U.S. is still embroiled in a costly, deeply unpopular war. The nation and the media are naturally focused on American casualties, on whether we can build a workable state and on when we will leave. Still, none of these explanations can excuse the lack of concern for 2 million people who have been forced from their country by our actions.
The stark reality is that no U.S. government, Republican or Democrat, is going to resettle hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees in the U.S. Nor is that the best solution. The best solution as is almost always the case is for most of the refugees to return home. They need to rebuild their lives and their country. After five years of war, violence is down and the situation offers hope for mass return, but that day has not yet come (despite the Iraq government's recent promise to provide $195 million for returnees).
Until that time comes, they need plenty of help. In its waning days, the administration can at least provide the refugees greater financial assistance and can pressure Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to provide more than a pittance to them and to the states sheltering them.Finally, the U.S. should take in more refugees particularly those who will simply never return to Iraq or whose savings have run out. Our values and our interests in the Middle East demand a better response.
Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a board member of the International Rescue Committee. He was the U.S. ambassador to Thailand (1978-81) and Turkey (1989-91).