Strengthening our Humanitarian Commitment to the People of Iraq

By Elizabeth Campbell

Next month the United States will have completed the withdrawal of half of its combat troops, bringing the number down to 50,000. According to the Status of Forces Agreement, the remaining troops should leave by the end of 2011. Most Americans have long since turned their attention away from Iraq, but as Patrick Cockburn in The Independent recently wrote, “American troops leave behind a country that is a barely floating wreck.”

Part of this floating wreck is the protracted refugee situation. Hundreds of thousands of refugees face deepening poverty and despair. Unable to work legally some are forced to return to Iraq; women turn to nightclubs and prostitution, and children leave school to try to help their families earn a living. The United States has provided humanitarian assistance largely through the UN Refugee Agency; however, this is barely enough to provide cash assistance to 12,000 of the most vulnerable displaced Iraqis in Syria, out of a total of 166,000. Refugees cite ongoing violence and insecurity, lack of access to basic services, and no work opportunities as some of the reasons discouraging their return.

Evidence of the floating wreck is easily available within Iraq’s borders as well. Some 500,000 displaced people live as squatters in slum areas. Their situation is only growing more precarious by the day. They live amongst garbage dumps, alongside polluted waters, and under highways. It will take years if not decades for the promised oil wealth to reach them—if it ever does.

Add to this squatter population, more than one million additional persons displaced internally in Iraq, and one can begin to get a more realistic picture what the United States is leaving behind.

In Baghdad today many families enjoy only six hours of electricity a day. Some have less than one hour. Schools are run down and dilapidated. Most have two to three shifts per day to accommodate all of the students. For scores of neighborhoods, residents must have potable water trucked in from afar. Freedom of movement may exist in theory, but the hundreds of checkpoints and blast walls that pepper the city make travel, and hence business and trade, very difficult.

On July 22nd the Helsinki Commission chaired by Senator Cardin and co-chaired by Congressman Hastings will hold a hearing to highlight the ongoing refugee crisis. Refugees International’s President will testify. This is an important moment for the U.S. government: will the government make a multi-year humanitarian commitment to Iraq’s displaced, dispossessed, and nearly forgotten victims of the war, or will it plod along with similar levels of assistance and resettlement opportunities?

The U.S. has currently funded the United Nations humanitarian appeals at 23%. Refugees International believes that these appeals should be funded at no less than 50%. If it continues at the same pace, refugee resettlement opportunities to the U.S. will be less this year than they were in fiscal year 2009. More then halfway through the year, the U.S. humanitarian commitment is waning—when it should be dramatically increasing. Let’s hope that Thursday’s hearing provides an opportunity for the U.S. government to renew and strengthen its humanitarian commitment to Iraq’s people in the wake of the U.S. military withdrawal. It is too soon to close the file on Iraq’s most vulnerable families.