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A Long Road for Iraq's Refugees

Author: Greg Bruno
May 22, 2008


The plight of Iraq's refugees, often overlooked amid the ongoing challenges of reconstruction and redevelopment, has surfaced as a major policy challenge for the United States and Iraq as nongovernmental organizations, aid groups, and lawmakers demand more be done to address the problem. The United Nations estimates that three decades of war and internal conflict have uprooted nearly five million Iraqis. Despite a clear and present need for action, however, a political consensus on a new policy toward these refugees remains elusive. As Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-NY), chairman of a House subcommittee on Middle East affairs, said recently, "The two governments who should be most concerned …are the ones who seem the least interested in helping."

Since 2003, the United States has allocated at least $208 million to assisting displaced Iraqis. Ambassador James B. Foley, the top State Department official for Iraqi refugee issues, said in April that he expects total contributions to reach about $280 million. House lawmakers are also trying to increase spending by an additional $454 million over the president’s budget request. Iraqis, too, are making dollars available. In a new podcast with, Said I. Hakki, president of the Iraqi Red Crescent Organization, says the government of Nouri al-Maliki responded quickly to requests for cash to help feed embattled residents of Sadr City.

Yet opponents of Baghdad's policies point to a perceived inability to spend money (PDF). Iraq's coffers are flush with oil revenue, and yet a lack of institutional capacity and poor planning means much of its budget goes unspent. The inertia has generated appeals for fixes deep within Iraq’s power structure. On May 12 the head of parliament's Displacement and Migration Committee threatened to resign (IRIN) unless reforms are made.

The Bush administration, too, has endured a wave of humanitarian criticism. In a New York Times op-ed, members of the International Rescue Committee’s board chided the financial response from Washington as insufficient. Rabih Torbay of the International Medical Corps told lawmakers this month that total U.S. refugee aid spending would fund less than 48 hours of military spending in the country. Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin channeled the sentiment more directly: "On the subject of Iraqi refugees," Rubin writes, "there is a deafening silence from the White House." Lawmakers in Washington have been more vocal. Some, including Rep. William Delahunt (D-MA), have urged the Iraqi government to spend more on refugees (BosGlobe). Iraqi lawmakers have reportedly taken up the issue but reached no consensus (Azzaman). As for other nations, the United Nations refugee agency announced on May 9 that it faces a $127 million shortfall in international pledges through the end of the year.

Reasons for the continued foot-dragging are varied. State Department officials told lawmakers in April some donor countries were withholding money because the Iraqi government has failed to adequately compensate (WashPost) Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan for sheltering refugees. Maliki, meanwhile, has urged refugees to "return to the country" to help rebuild, a call some are heeding (Alive in Baghdad). "Ultimately, only Iraqis can save Iraq," opines Refugees International in a new analysis of the crisis (PDF).

And yet there's little question salvation has been complicated by lackluster financial commitments. The UN's refugee agency warns that unless its shortfall in funding is met, vital assistance programs could be slashed. Torbay says refugees aren't waiting for the rug to be pulled, and are instead turning to non-state actors for support. Humanitarian groups like Refugee International warn it is this trend—citizens relying on nongovernmental entities for services, including the Mahdi Army and other militias—that could become the costliest price tag of Iraq's refugee problem.

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