America Should Open Its Doors to Iraqis

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Washington has pledged $12.8 billion to help Iraq’s refugees, but its moral obligation extends far beyond the money. (Photo: James Gordon / Flickr)

President Barack Obama got it right when he declared: “There’s no military solution inside of Iraq, certainly not one that is led by the United States.”

But his Iraq track record doesn’t mark much of an improvement over the mess his predecessor made.

The June takeover of Mosul by the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) — a group born from the devastation wrought by the U.S. invasion — has only escalated the mass displacement of Iraqis that the Bush administration sparked in 2003. Half a million people have left Nineveh province in the last month. They’re only the most recent exodus in a six-month-long wave of displacement from western and northern Iraq as ISIS has fought its way across the country.

As ISIS moves toward Baghdad, aerial bombing and clashes with the Iraqi military and local militias have driven thousands of Iraqis — mostly Shi’a, Kurds, and other ethnic and religious minorities, but also many Sunni Arabs — to safer areas in the south or to the territories controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government and its security forces.

There are now nearly 3 million internally displaced persons in Iraq. Over 700,000 of them remain displaced from the war following the U.S. invasion in 2003. Many thousands of Iraqis who had escaped to Syria have returned to Iraq because of the civil war there, along with over 200,000 Syrians.

Most of these returnees and new refugees arriving from the north have taken shelter in Kurdish towns (some in construction sites), or in camps set up by the Kurdish government and the United Nations.

And strained resources, combined with the temporary visas granted to non-Kurdish Iraqis, have forced many people to return to ISIS-controlled or embattled areas.

Iraq now faces a dire refugee crisis that is both humanitarian and political. Washington has promised $12.8 billion to fund services for refugees and internally displaced people in the current crisis in Iraq.

Money can do much to serve the immediate needs of displaced people for shelter, food, medical care and education. But money can’t buy a political solution to the crisis of legitimacy afflicting Iraq’s post-war institutions, tainted as they are by the sectarianism fostered during the U.S. occupation.

Nor can money relieve Washington of its obligations to help the thousands of Iraqis who have applied for permanent resettlement outside of Iraq. The Bush administration accepted only a few dozen Iraqi refugees a year until 2007 — primarily because it didn’t want to admit that there had been no “mission accomplished” in Iraq.

In the first year of the expanded refugee program, fewer than 2,000 refugees arrived. By this past May, the U.S. government had welcomed a total of 103,000 Iraqis. That may sound like a lot. But compare it to the 72,000 Iraqi refugees that Sweden — a country roughly the size of California, with scarcely a quarter of the population — has admitted.

U.S. refugee policies favor members of persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, and there’s a direct application process for Iraqis whose lives have been threatened due to employment or involvement with the U.S. military, its contractors, and American media outlets. But the approval rate for those whose applications are referred by the United Nations and the International Organization for Migration still hovers around 40 percent.

With the instability in Iraq, many American diplomatic staff have evacuated, including those responsible for refugee applications. The process is stalled precisely when it should be working overtime.

In 2009, Obama said that the United States has “a strategic interest — and a moral responsibility” to help displaced Iraqis.

No matter how fervently Washington tries to wash its hands of Iraq, that moral responsibility remains.

Amanda Ufheil-Somers is the assistant editor of Middle East Report, published by the Middle East Research and Information Project (

  • Bluhorizons

    Maybe we should just dispense with immigration and let anyone in who has a heart-rending story. There are certainly enough of those in the world, from political persecution to economic distress and i am sure with very little effort we could double the US population in just a few years, then never have to worry about who will cut the grass or wash dishes or do the laundry. Of course our own US low-end workers will be out of a job, but we can extend unemployment so that it lasts a lifetime. Of course the tax payers will have to pay, but hey, America is rich!

    • certop

      many of the people of iraq have “heart-rending stories” precisely because of how your tax dollars were spent in their country.

      • Bluhorizons

        Countries are poor because they have political systems that create poverty, not wealth. These countries remain poor because of their system and no amount of aid has ever improved them. But the aid is given because people feel sorry for them.But aid never changes the formula.

        There are many countries like this all over the world and their desperate citizens try to escape. But there is an endless supply of them and every time you feel sorry for them and make it easier for them to stay, more come.

        So many hispanics have illegally immigrated to the US that it has changed the demography of the country, contributed to the US being the only developed country with an increasing population and damaged our own workers who have to compete with the illegals. Please tell me how this benefits the US aside from providing a permanent underclass of surfs.

        • certop

          you’re conflating issues. immigration from latin america to the united states is largely economic, though the recent influx of child migrants speaks to a terrifying security situation in a handful of countries. FPIF has published numerous articles about the role of U.S. policy in promoting this situation, as well as the role of trade agreements in creating economic balances, so we won’t go into that here.

          separately, i’d urge you to google studies on the economic impacts of immigration. outside of racist nuthouses like the heritage foundation, it’s nearly always assessed positively. (you seem to observe this yourself–immigration keeps the labor force afloat even as native birthrates dwindle. check out germany, which has the strongest economy in europe despite its stagnant birthrate precisely because of immigration.)

          the refugee issue, however, is separate, particularly in iraq. on a host of trumped up charges, the u.s. destroyed the country and made it a terrifyingly unsafe place to live. the author is simply suggesting, correctly i think, that the u.s. bears a unique responsibility to resettle some of the people displaced and terrorized as a result of its own policies.

          • Bluhorizons

            I have never heard of anyone objecting to legal immigration and I certainly do not. But I do object to literally hundreds of thousands of illegals entering America and I object even more to having a gigantic hole in our national security thru which anyone can pass. One day there will be a big bang in America and later we will discover that they brought the terrorists and all their equipment across the Rio Grande.

  • DaoTe

    This is not the first time America has destroyed a country in order to
    save it. Vietnam and Afghanistan are recent examples. It is no longer
    the country that once helped defeated enemies to find a way forward o
    peace and prosperity as in the case of the Axis powers (West Germany,
    Italy and Japan) after WW II. In Iraq’s case, the war was launched on
    false premises by a deceitful regime, then its civil society and
    institutions were casually destroyed by the criminal occupying
    administration who knew little and cared less about the Iraqi people.
    This atrocity was followed by a descent into chaos and civil war during
    which time much of the educated population, and anyone else able to,
    fled. There followed years of horrible civil war with the Americans
    finally “achieving” a modicum of stability through co-opting Sunni
    insurgents and cutting deals with crooked Shiites so that they could
    declare “victory” and leave. After each defeat (Vietnam, Iraq and soon,
    Afghanistan) there remain thousands upon thousands of decent people,
    many of whom are forever tainted by their trust in and association with
    the imbecilic and unbelievably cruel American “saviors” who, tired of
    spending billions and sacrificing thousands of their own for no
    discernible or worthy purpose, change channels and ride off into the
    sunset looking for someone else to save. But America, by accepting
    massive immigration of people they have so wronged, does not redress the
    problems they have created. In fact, by further draining educated
    talented people from a country they arguably make them worse. The only
    hope, a faint one indeed, is that these ignorant callous spoiled
    children forever pounding their breasts and screaming the mantra “We Are
    the Greatest Country in the History of the World” might learn from
    experience and act with intelligence and understanding in the future.
    Interimly, perhaps we could execute a trade. For each desperate Iraqi
    family America accepts, a family of Americans, chosen from the political
    industrial and military elite who have supported this awful war, could
    be resettled in Iraq. One small step towards justice?