Where Is the Outrage as U.S. Refuses to Open Doors For Iraqi Refugees?

Iraq's porous borders have been leaking citizens for nearly two years -- so why did it take so long for the press to start pressing the issue?

On June 18, 2003, the New York Times ran a sentimental front-page article entitled “U.S. a Place of Miracles for Somali Refugees” on the plight of escaping a nation’s civil war and finding faith and opportunity in America. Telling the story of Osman Yarrow, a newly arrived Somali, the writer portrayed a newcomer delightfully bewildered in his new surroundings, baffled by kitchen appliances and ecstatic to sleep at night without a gunfire serenade. More importantly, the article reported that Yarrow’s story was part of a larger trend, as the U.S. was preparing to admit over 13,000 Somalis into the country by the end of 2004. The estimate proved more than cursory — a total of 13,331 refugees were admitted for the year from the embattled African nation.

These days, refugee stories in major newspapers tend to sound less heartwarming, as the growing humanitarian crisis caused by Iraq’s civil war makes it increasingly difficult to ignore the near two million refugees who have fled the country. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Washington Post have all published stories in recent weeks charting the mass exodus of Iraqi’s citizens to places like Jordan, Syria, and Iran.

Conspicuously absent from these narratives, however, are stories like that of Osman Yarrow, in which a refugee’s struggle concludes with an arrival across the Atlantic. As the Boston Globe’s Michael Kranish reported last week, there’s probably good reason for that.

In 2005, Kranish notes, the Office of Immigration Statistics reported that a whopping 198 of the 53,738 refugees admitted to the United States that year were from Iraq. Compared to 1,849 Iranians, 1,665 Ethiopians, and 8,517 Laotians, the number of refugees arriving from what is arguably the most broken country in the world seems particularly startling — and worthy of a bit of attention from the news media.

But wait, Kranish also reports that the quota for Iraqi refugees allowed into the United States is increasing for 2007 — to a total of 500.

The story raises a host of questions about U.S. policy regarding Iraqi refugees, all of which journalists should be asking. Colin Powell, cautioning about the consequences of invading Iraq, famously said, “If you break it, you own it.” Well, we broke Iraq, and part of owning that fact would seem to be accepting responsibility for the human shards that were sent scattering. Kranish, in his December 11 article, was among the first to start asking these questions, and he said in a phone interview that he expects there to be more stories in the coming months that explore the U.S. government’s relationship to Iraq’s refugees.

But Iraq’s porous borders have been leaking citizens for nearly two years. Why did it take so long for the press to start, well, pressing this issue? The short history has not been a proud one. Back in May of 2004, Slate’s Timothy Noah wrote an article entitled “Where are Iraq’s Refugees?”, which attempted to explain why pre-war predictions of hundreds of thousands of refugees were supposedly so far off. Eight months later, the Washington Post published a story that painted a radically different picture, in which the Syrian government claimed that over 700,000 Iraqis had arrived since the start of the war. But until the Globe released Kranish’s story, none had even attempted to address the question of why none of those leaving are ending up here.

Of course, these stories are complicated. The number of Iraqi exiles and the attendant need for funds and aid has overwhelmed pre-war predictions, and the U.S. and U.N. have engaged in what Kranish described as “finger-pointing” over how to decide which refugees need to be resettled. Moreover, as in many humanitarian crises, the complexity of U.S. immigration procedures has created a huge backlog, so that many refugees aren’t admitted into the country until years after the conflict. Despite these complications, the U.S. government has been known to open its borders to refugees from particular nations in the effort to de-legitimize an enemy regime — it happened with Iraq under Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of the first gulf war.

Our comprehension of Iraq’s refugee crisis is hampered, too, by its incompleteness. Little information is available on how many refugees would actually want to come to the U.S. But as President Bush’s justification for invading Iraq has slid from remaking the Middle East to the more humanitarian notion of liberating innocent Iraqis from a tyrant, the alarmingly low numbers of Iraqi refugees allowed into this country would seem to represent a damning indictment of this administration. We hope Kranish is right in his belief that the press will take pains to unearth the whole story. Until then, the American public will be left guessing as to why our government’s commitment to helping Iraqis who have fled their shattered country seems so threadbare.

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Andrew Bielak was a CJR intern.