Rarely do morality and strategy come together in the Middle East—particularly in the case of Iraq. Yet there is one area where the right thing for Iraq is also the best option for America’s long-term interests: preventing the Iraqi refugee crisis from further destabilizing the region. So far, the debate in the United States has focused on the fates of Iraqis who have worked with U.S. diplomats and soldiers, as translators and so on. Although these individuals are owed a special debt, our responsibility does not end there. The United States should accept tens of thousands of refugees and must encourage other major powers to do the same. Washington should also initiate a program to boost the capacity of neighboring states to host refugees and prevent them from becoming a source of instability.
Although casualty reports dominate the headlines, Iraq is also suffering a staggering exodus of refugees. More than 2 million Iraqis—from a total population of 27 million—have fled the chaos, and the numbers grow every day. (Even more Iraqis have fled their homes but have resettled in other parts of Iraq, thus technically avoiding the label “refugee.”) So far, the migrants have clustered in nations close to Iraq, particularly in Syria and Jordan. U.S. efforts to help these refugees have ranged from feeble to nonexistent. The United States has so far taken in barely more than 1,000 Iraqi refugees but will reportedly boost this to 12,000 next year: a significant percentage increase on the surface but only when the absurdly low base rate is considered.
It is both morally abhorrent and strategically ill-advised to abandon these refugees. To state the obvious, the U.S. failure to establish security in Iraq drove them to leave their homes. Literally millions of people have fled under horrific circumstances, and the United States bears much of the responsibility. Americans may, understandably, say that they can no longer sacrifice to bring stability to Iraq, but that does not excuse us from the broader duty to help those who continue to suffer.
Putting aside our moral responsibility, the United States needs to take in refugees to offset significant strategic risks. The 1948 Israeli war of independence produced more than 700,000 refugees. Almost 60 years later, the region still suffers from the failure to solve this refugee problem. The Palestinian refugee crisis contributed to wars between Israel and its neighbors in 1956, 1967, and 1982, as well as to Israel’s constant terrorism problem.
Few Iraqi refugees are incorporated into the nations that are hosting them, but there is no prospect that they will return to Iraq in large numbers in the near future. It would not be surprising if, 20 years from now, millions of Iraqis still lived outside their home country. In other words, this problem will not disappear if we ignore it.
As with the Palestinian problem, Iraq’s refugees could generate numerous regional crises. Large refugee flows can overstrain the economies and even change the demographic makeup of small or weak states, upsetting what is already a delicate political balance. One million Iraqi refugees is a substantial addition to Jordan’s population of less than 6 million. At times, the refugees simply bring the war with them: Fighters mingle with noncombatant refugees and launch attacks back in their home countries, while those who drove them out continue the fight in the refugees’ new bases.
After the Rwandan genocide in 1994, for example, Hutu perpetrators fled to neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and continued to launch cross-border raids against Rwanda’s new Tutsi-led government, which had ousted them. The Hutu fighters recruited in refugee camps, using them as bases in which to plan, organize, and launch attacks. Not surprisingly, the new Rwandan government began to attack the camps, precipitating a civil war in DRC that led to the collapse of the regime there and the death of millions. Neighboring governments may try to defend new arrivals from attacks by their enemies or exploit the refugees to fight battles on the government’s behalf. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Iran armed Iraqi refugees who had fled there and used them as a proxy army, the Badr Corps, against Saddam’s Iraq. These fighters have returned to Iraq, and many have joined the Iraqi police and military. Some Iraqi politicians still accuse them of surreptitiously working for Iran.
Refugee camps can also be incubators for terrorist groups. Young men—bored, embittered, and accustomed to a world of violent politics—are natural recruits. Many Palestinian refugees flocked to join terrorist groups, preferring radical solutions to the endless failed attempts to address their plight peacefully.
Over time, refugees can also radicalize the politics of their host nations. In Lebanon during the early 1970s, the presence of thousands of armed Palestinians in the country inevitably became a contentious political issue and pushed the country toward civil war. In Pakistan today, commentators fear the “Talibanization” of the country, a reference to the way in which Pakistan’s support for the Afghan refugees who formed the core of the Taliban in the 1990s has come back to haunt Pakistan. Sectarian strife, suicide bombings, and religious radicalism are now far more prevalent in Pakistan.
The arguments against bringing more Iraqi refugees to the United States are considerable, but in the end unconvincing. Politically, a massive aid-and-resettlement program represents an admission of failure for the U.S. effort to bring stability to Iraq. Anti-immigrant groups will hardly be sympathetic to suggestions that we should admit thousands of refugees who are both Arabs and Muslims. More troubling from a strategic perspective, taking in refugees can encourage more refugee flows—individuals might hesitate to leave Baghdad for a slum in Amman, Jordan, but jump at a chance to live in a suburb of Seattle. What’s more, some of those who take shelter in the United States will have been radicalized in Iraq, making them potential candidates for militant groups that wish to operate on U.S. soil. While these concerns are quite real, they don’t outweigh America’s moral responsibility and the greater strategic risk that large refugee flows can entail to regional stability.
One model to consider is the Orderly Departure Program, which brought hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese to settle in the United States—refugees who eventually became model U.S. citizens. In addition to allowing more Iraqis to settle here, bringing in Iraqi refugees on a larger scale would also inspire other wealthy countries far from the Middle East to accept more. If Iraqis settled in Europe or other countries outside the region, this would break up the potentially dangerous concentrations along Iraq’s borders, reducing the risk that these refugees could be recruited into terrorist or guerrilla groups. It would also reduce the likelihood that the refugee problem would radicalize the domestic politics of Jordan, Syria, or other regional hosts.
Unless the United States welcomes far more refugees, it’s unlikely that Washington will be able to convince other Western nations to open their doors. Some allies will share our moral and strategic concerns, while effective diplomacy can push others into offering assistance. Still others could at least provide financial support and other help. Allies who opposed the war and criticize the U.S. occupation might find the refugee issue more politically palatable than offering direct support to the U.S. military effort.
In any event, the United States must increase its aid and technical assistance to Iraq’s neighbors, particularly Jordan and also allies in the Persian Gulf. These countries must be able to police refugee communities and be sure that their already frayed social services are not completely overwhelmed by the new arrivals. Since the refugee problem is likely to grow as the United States draws down its forces, we must begin this assistance now.
It is tempting to try to offer the bare minimum, providing limited humanitarian relief and relying on Iraq’s neighbors, hoping the problem will solve itself. But as we’ve learned in the Middle East, hope is not a policy. America must try to resolve this problem before a much greater crisis erupts. At that point, it will be too late.