Refugees suffer in postwar Iraq

Remember Iraq?

Given the rate at which we are invading or otherwise engaged in military operations in volatile countries today -- “secret” drone attacks in Pakistan, full-fledged war in Afghanistan, a fictional “handoff” to NATO forces in Libya, not-so-covert operations in a politically deteriorating Syria, and so on and so on -- you’d be forgiven for forgetting that country of 30 million we invaded eight years ago.

Our television anchors report that things are going well there now. Lots of good news: car bombings relatively rare, U.S. troops preparing to withdraw (most of them at least), a struggling nonsectarian democracy taking root. Still, the consequences of our attack are best remembered, lest we repeat mistakes made there.

In this issue (see story) we learn from Margot Patterson’s firsthand reporting that the Iraq war is as real today for millions of displaced Iraqis as it was the evening we launched the first cruise missile into downtown Baghdad. Since then, somewhere between 1 million and 2 million Iraqis, often that society’s best and brightest, have fled to the relative serenity and prosperity of Jordan and Syria. Most will never return to Iraq, though their current arrangements are far from permanent.

Another 2 million Iraqis, meanwhile, have been uprooted internally, no longer welcome in communities controlled by opposing sects, or victims of nonsectarian political squabbles that easily turn deadly. In U.S. terms, it’s as if the residents of New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania -- goodbye Mid-Atlantic -- were deported to Canada and surrounding states.

Meanwhile, amid the volatility of 2011’s “Arab Spring,” these mostly impoverished millions, including a disproportionate number of persecuted Christians, scramble for basic necessities -- jobs, apartments, food, health care.

Jordan and Syria have, generally speaking, acted responsibly as refugees have flooded their respective countries -- as responsibly as any nation facing an unwanted influx equivalent to as much as 10 percent of their existing populations. It’s like moving more than 3 million war-ravaged Canadians into Michigan. As the oligarchies and dictatorships of the Middle East react to pressure from democracy activists and others, governmental solicitude, never a high priority, will be further taxed.

“Refugees running out of money, aid organizations running out of relief funds, diminishing opportunities for resettlement, host countries burdened by many years of caring for refugees -- it looks like an intractable and worsening problem,” writes Patterson. Indeed it does.

(Of course, all of this wasn’t to be. “I believe demolishing Hussein’s military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk,” Kenneth Adelman, an influential advisor to then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, declared a year prior to the invasion in a Washington Post op-ed. But that’s another tragic story.)

One point begging for consideration in Patterson’s story is how the effects of war linger well beyond -- in time and geography -- the battlefields of conflict. Another is that it takes great effort and focused humanitarian concern to respond adequately to the needs of the displaced of war.

Remember the 2 million Vietnamese “boat people” who, following the collapse of Saigon, ended up living in refugee camps scattered throughout Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Hong Kong? They languished for years in jungle camps and zoo-like interment warehouses. Media reports from that time told horrendous stories of rape, murder and robbery on the South China Sea. International pressure finally grew to such a pitch that Western nations through the United Nations refugee agency established programs to resettle them permanently. That program officially began in 1979 and didn’t end until 1999. The roots of the Vietnam War are complex, though it grew to be a primarily American-led tragedy. The roots of the Iraq war are more easily traceable to decisions made in the Bush White House. The United States, then, carries unique responsibilities for displaced Iraqis from Iraq. While there appears to be little appetite in some sectors of our nation to open doors to more immigrants, we cannot shirk the moral responsibilities we will carry for years as a result of this war.

For a report on Iraqi refugees in Jordan, see: Iraqi refugees stuck in transit

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