The dangers of an Iraqi diaspora

Matt Rolland

As the final seconds of the 2007 Asian Cup ticked away July 29, millions of Iraqis poured onto streets across the globe to celebrate. To the world’s surprise, war-beleaguered Iraq had won its first pan-Asiatic soccer competition. However, millions of the voices and cheering crowds were not to be found in the streets of Baghdad or in alleyways of Mosul, but in Syria, Jordan and beyond, to Europe. The distant and disconnected celebrations highlight one of the most serious consequences of the current War on Terror: the diaspora of more than 2 million Iraqi refugees since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The often overlooked Iraqi refugee crisis not only presents a serious economic and social burden to neighboring countries, but bodes serious difficulties ahead for Middle Eastern stability. The United States’ military prowess may have proved itself in the first few hours of bombing, but our ability to address the Iraqi refugee crisis will be the true bellwether of long-term success in our fight against terror.

At times, these Iraqis have been met with sympathy and open doors. Neighboring Jordan has absorbed more than 750,000 Iraqis since 2003, or 12 percent of the Jordanian population. In Syria, Iraqi refugees now number more than 1.4 million thanks to a Syrian open-door policy. Contrast these numbers with the United States, where, according to the U.S. State Department, less than 600 Iraqi refugees have been accepted since April 2003. You read that right. Only 600. The Republican administration has adamantly limited Iraqi resettlement, insisting Iraqi refugees pose a preventable security threat. However, this stringent policy has little precedent.

In the late 1990s, the U.S. resettled more than 32,000 Iraqi refugees fleeing the Hussein regime. Furthermore, compared to other developed countries, our refugee levels are dismal. During the current war, Iraqi refugees accepted in Europe number more than 18,000. It seems Uncle Sam has locked the door to Iraqi asylum seekers and the key is lost somewhere in the Congressional labyrinth.

Meanwhile, Middle Eastern countries are being overwhelmed by the massive influx of Iraqi refugees. Jordan’s fragile health care system is groaning under the burden, and housing costs are skyrocketing because of the spike in demand. In a laudable move, Jordan’s prime minister recently announced that his nation will allow more than 50,000 Iraqi children to be admitted into its free public education system. However, this system cannot sustain itself. With no steady income, the refugees bring few tax contributions to neighboring countries. The United States may have fronted the short-term military costs, but neighboring countries are being forced into absorbing the long-term social costs.

The U.S. refugee policies are nearsighted at best. The U.S. is in desperate need of translators and individuals with Middle Eastern experience, but is refusing to admit even friendly Iraqi translators into the U.S. now that conditions are life-threatening. Displaced Iraqis will remember which countries opened their doors to them after the bombs fade and the dust settles. Looking ahead to Iraq reconstruction, the Iraqi social losses are of paramount importance. The refugee crisis has drained Iraq of its wealthiest, most-educated citizens. Although the 2 million Iraqi refugees represent only 7 percent of Iraq’s overall population, they constitute nearly 40 percent of Iraq’s wealth. Labor laws in neighboring countries prevent them from seeking gainful employment. This means not only are the wealthiest, most educated professionals no longer in Iraq, but they are draining their savings to keep food on their tables. The refugee crisis is not just a humanitarian problem, but a serious threat to Iraqi’s future economic stability.

So now the question remains: In one of the most critical transitions in the Middle East’s modern history, why is the U.S. giving Syria and Jordan the leadership in aiding the long-term core players in Iraq’s reconstruction?

The U.S. failure to address the Iraqi refugee crisis reveals a deeper rift within foreign policy circles: the difference between long-term and short-term strategies to combating terror. As the last four years clearly show, aggravated assault is not the panacea to fighting terror. This is fourth-generation warfare, where non-lethal technology and humanitarian aid are our only weapons to establishing staying power with future leaders. We must shift our mindset from bursting bombs to building bridges. Ultimately, the only effective strategy to combat terror is to solve the deeper social problems that have given rise to radical terrorist groups. While Hamas’ election to Palestinian parliament may have left many Americans scratching their heads, we should now learn a lesson from the Iraqi refugee crisis: Providing solutions to problems of sustenance will prove far more effective in winning public support than military barrage. Unfortunately, the U.S. may only learn this lesson after the final troops have left the Iraqi arena.

Matt Rolland is a junior majoring in economics and international studies. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.