Today, Jordan hosts roughly half a million Iraqi refugees out of
approximately two million worldwide. From our operations in Iraq, we
are acutely aware of how this crisis came to be and believe that we,
as a nation, bear a moral responsibility for their safety.
As American veterans of the war in Iraq and as humanitarians, we have
come to Amman to see their predicament for ourselves. In response to
what we regarded as inadequate measures by our government, we formed
the non-profit organization Iraq Veterans Refugee Aid Association
Together, with our press team, we set out on a public diplomacy
mission paying visits to the American and Iraqi embassies, to the
Jordanian interior and foreign ministries, to the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to NGOs, and met with local
activists, and, most importantly, the refugees themselves. What we
were pleased to find among all was absolute consensus on one very
important point: The Iraq refugees need help now.
But the consensus, we discovered, goes even deeper. To a great extent,
the approach to assistance is agreed upon, too. From the refugees to
the UNHCR, to the Iraqi, American, and Jordanian governments, all
concur that returning home to Iraq, once it is safe to do so, is the
most favorable course of action. The differences in perspective, we
found, arise from how support is rendered and the view of whether or
not Iraq is now safe enough for repatriation.
The refugees say the reason they will not return to Iraq is that it is
too dangerous and unlivable. And yet, living conditions in Jordan are
arduous: work permits are difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.
Medical insurance, school registration fees, food, rent,
transportation, and other basic needs are, for most, cost-prohibitive.
So the refugees wait in their tiny homes with no end in sight and no
ability to help themselves.
They wait for a miracle, because that is all that is left.
Ahmed, an Iraqi father whom we spoke with, fled from Basra in the
beginning of the war. He'd lost his seven-year-old son because he
could not afford medical care in Jordan. Meanwhile, his
twelve-year-old son, Amir, was losing his sight and hearing from
depleted uranium radiation exposure resulting from Gulf War munitions.
The family lives in a poor neighborhood of Amman with only two rooms,
no windows, and only a ceiling fan to cool them in the hot days and
nights."I cannot even take a cab home at night because the drivers
won't come to this part of the city," said Ahmed.
The Jordanians, on the other hand, have concerns of their own.
Officials we spoke to expressed concern for their country and its
infrastructure, and all pointed out that Jordan has undergone as much
as a 10percent increase in its population over a very short period of
Naser Al-Ramadin, the assistant director to the Jordanian Minister of
Interior, said, "Our infrastructure is decaying, our economy is
suffering and we are not receiving the amount of international support
that we need. The burden of this humanitarian problem should be
And Jordanian Foreign Ministry diplomat in charge of the Iraqi Refugee
File, Mohammad al-Shahankari, said, "No matter what area you can
imagine--education, health, electricity, water, security, and all
levels of infrastructure--all of it has been impacted by the Iraqi
Sylvia Braun, the Regional Program Manager of the International
Catholic Migration Commission, echoed the sentiment that Iraq is too
dangerous to return to: "Every Iraqi we meet says that they don't
think Iraq will be safe for at least the next 10 years."
Daniel Rubinstein, the acting US Ambassador to Jordan also agreed,
telling us that there is definitely a widespread fear among Iraqis.
And Shahankari of the Jordanian Foreign Ministry remarked to us
candidly: "Iraq will not be safe for at least five years...at least."
Thamir Salman, the Minister Plenipotentiary at the Iraqi Embassy in
Amman did not fully agree, suggesting that Iraq was indeed safe enough
to begin bringing refugees home. "We feel Iraqis should return to Iraq
as soon as possible. We need our scientists, doctors and skilled
people to help us redevelop," said Salman.
But Salman did concede that no comprehensive plan exists to receive
the two million refugees and the 2.5 million more internally
displaced. He also acknowledged the serious infrastructure shortfalls
in Iraq and the need for more time and resources before such a large
volume of people could return.
Imran Riza, head of UNHCR in Amman had a similar opinion.
"The economic, security and infrastructure conditions in Iraq are
still not sufficient to accommodate the millions of Iraqi refugees who
have taken refuge in neighboring countries, and probably will not be
any time in the near future."
State Department officials from the Bureau of Population, Refugees and
Migration told us that while repatriation was their focus two years
ago, they now support the UNHCR position that repatriation is not
presently a viable course of action. Consequently, they have turned to
their efforts to resettlement and assistance in host nations.
As our discussion turned to statistics, State Department officials
quickly pointed out: "We don't focus on the total number of refugees
out there. We work as hard and as fast as we can to help those with
the greatest need."
Since August 2008, the United States has resettled 11,187 refugees who
have fled Iraq from the outset of the war. They expect to resettle
approximately 4,000 more by the end of this fiscal year.
From our observations in Amman, the numbers in need are vastly higher
than those presently being helped.
This is an area where IVRAA feels the US has performed poorly. This
is not necessarily due to a dysfunctional process or inadequate effort
on the part of field personnel; indeed we witnessed many devoted and
hard-working people throughout the system from NGOs, to UNHCR, to the
US departments of State and Homeland Security.
It is more because the process is new and has not yet developed to
America's potential -- a potential that was demonstrated after the
Vietnam War when we welcomed nearly a million Vietnamese refugees into
State department officials told us that the infrastructure that is in
place now to process Iraq refugees did not exist 18 months ago and, in
their experience, such rapid mobilization was impressive. It strikes
us that in another 18 months, even more impressive improvements could
To a large extent, US targets for resettlement are driven by the
capacity of this system. As part of the overall strategy to safeguard
Iraq refugees, this capacity needs to be improved through increased
funding so that substantially greater numbers of Iraq refugees may be
State Department officials agreed that if they were given a greater
budget, their ability to assist Iraq's refugees would certainly
But even with increased capacity, it seems evident that the US cannot
or does not wish to resettle all of the Iraq refugees worldwide. And
with repatriation off the table for the time-being, we must return to
the issue of aid for those refugees stuck in countries like Jordan.
So, this problem must be broken down into two fundamental questions:
How much help is needed? And what portion of that need is the
responsibility of America?
It is clear that the Iraqi refugees continue to languish.
We have heard many tortuous explanations by various bureaucrats who
would have us believe that there is no monetary figure that could ever
deal with the crisis at hand. We find that difficult to believe.
As former military officers serving in the Department of Defense, we
are quite familiar with the amazing things that can be accomplished
with a large budget. From the discussions we've had here in Amman and
at home in the US, the dollars needed to properly contend with this
humanitarian issue will easily reach into the billions. But
considering the rate at which the US has spent money on the war in
Iraq, we don't believe this is an unobtainable goal.
It is a fact that the US remains, by far, the largest donor to this
crisis, providing hundreds of millions of dollars since the war began.
But, we feel that in light of our nation's integral role in the cause
of the refugee situation, "giving the most" is not sufficient. Giving
enough to fix the problem is what our government owes the millions in
The international community must also increase its assistance;
however, responsibility ultimately rests with America.
We have met with a great deal of influential people involved with this
issue and seen many of them shake their heads, shrug, and tell us the
situation is hopeless. They are quick to point out all the challenges,
all the limitations, and all the political strife that stand in the
way of our helping the Iraqi people.
We cannot accept these excuses. We have met the Iraqi refugees, been
in their modest homes and witnessed their destitution. We've held
their children in our laps.
We know that America has the power to help; it needs only the heart.