July 06, 2007

Iraqi Refugees

Lately, there have been a number of articles—most notably, George Packer's long New Yorker piece—about how the unending violence in Iraq has given rise to a massive refugee crisis, with some 1.9 million Iraqis uprooted from their homes, and hundreds of thousands fleeing to Syria and Jordan each month. Most of them end up in the slums of Amman and Damascus, so they don't get the media attention that they would if they were huddled in sprawling desert camps on the border. (The latter makes for better TV, presumably.)

But the kicker is that the United States isn't taking Iraqi refugees: Only 202 Iraqis were admitted in 2006. We're even turning away Iraqis who have helped U.S. forces and are now in danger of being marked as "collaborators" and killed. According to Joseph Huff-Hannon's recent piece in Dissent, the State Department is telling Iraqis that they cannot qualify for asylum status because Iraq is now a "democracy," and there's no reason to flee. Recently, in the Boston Globe, Arthur Dewey, a former assistant secretary of state, explained that the administration wanted to "discourage" an influx of Iraqi refugees, "because of the psychological message it would send, that it is a losing cause."

Anyway, it's not online right now, but Huff-Hannon's Dissent piece is a very good addition to this line of reporting, especially with the way it puts the current Iraq refugee policy in a broader context. The United States has always taken an impressive number of political refugees and asylum-seekers—far more than most countries do—and that is something to be proud of. But the U.S. has also always been selective:
Though historically the world's largest resettlement destination, the United States has linked refugee policy to foreign policy, making a consistent distinction between "deserving" and "undeserving" refugees. The undeserving are typically those fleeing war and persecution in countries with governments supported by the United States. Deserving refugees flee states that have leftist governments, stormy diplomatic relations with the United States, or both. North Korea, China, Vietnam, Eritrea, Iran, and Sudan, for example, are designated by the State Department as "Countries of Particular Concern." Unsurprisingly, their refugees receive a much heartier welcome than Iraq's.
During the 1980s, U.S.-backed military governments were wreaking havoc in Guatemala and El Salvador, causing up to one million residents to seek shelter in the United States. But they had a hard time getting asylum: They were labeled "economic migrants" by the Reagan administration and turned away or deported (and were often killed upon returning). By contrast, asylum seekers from Nicaragua were welcomed with open arms, since, after all, the official line was that they were fleeing the leftist Sandinista government. All told, Nicaraguan asylum claims were approved at a rate of about 60-80 percent, versus 2-3 percent for Salvadorans and Guatemalans.

That's not an aberration: Cuban refugees are, of course, always welcomed with open arms, while Haitians are considered "economic migrants" and usually sent back, even during the 1991 military coup. Vietnamese refugees were allowed to resettle here only after the war was over and Saigon fell in the hands of communists (although one the gates opened up, about 900,000 Vietnamese came to the United States). In a sense, the situation with Iraqi refugees just follows that pattern. But it is no less appalling now.
-- Brad Plumer 1:26 PM || ||