Last week I noticed that the prominent Arabic periodical, al-Hayat, had published an interesting investigative piece on Iraqi refugees in the United States. Not surprisingly, the lack of media coverage allocated to Iraq these days has alarmed Iraqi refugees, many of whom fear that the Obama administration's desire to focus on more pressing issues in Afghanistan and Pakistan will result in ignoring the residual humanitarian issues still lingering in Iraq.
The conflict in Iraq has generated over two million refugees, or one out of every 15 Iraqis. The vast majority have sought refuge in Syria and Jordan; the more affluent have been able to escape to western Europe, Australia, and the United States.
Who are they? Many are Iraqis who worked with the US-led occupation as interpreters, translators, drivers, and cooks. But most are just normal Iraqi citizens who became caught up the sectarian violence and forced to abandon their homes. One of the rarely mentioned reasons for the decline in sectarian violence post-2008 is that neighborhoods in Baghdad became almost entirely segregated, as these maps demonstrate. By 2008, almost every neighborhood east of the Tigris river was exclusively Shia. Small pockets of Sunni neighborhoods dot the western side of the city. This ethnic cleansing of Baghdad was carried out largely by sectarian Shia militias like Muqtada al-Sadr's Jaish al-Mahdi and the Badr Corps, and was often facilitated by Iraqi security forces (who themselves were infiltrated by the afore-mentioned sectarian militias).
So what's the status of the thousands of Iraqi refugees now living in the United States? Prior to 2008, the US had absorbed an embarrassingly small amount of refugees. However, the situation changed significantly after the late Senator Ted Kennedy co-sponsored legislation enabling the repatriation of a greater number of refugees in late 2008. The number repatriated in the US grew to 12,000 in 2008, followed by 18,000 in 2009 - a marked increase in comparison to the several hundred repatriated between 2003 and 2008.
Yet, challenges remain for those granted residency in the US. Few jobs are available given the severe economic downturn. As a consequence, educated refugees with university degrees are forced to settle for jobs quite different from those they left behind in Iraq. Apparently Ali al-Shamri, a former health minister and prominent member of the Sadr trend, is now working at a Wickman's supermarket somewhere in the United States.
So how will the Obama administration deal with the lingering refugee crisis plaguing Iraq? Will they strive to repatriate larger numbers of refugees in the US, or stall and hope that the security situation in Iraq improves to the extent that these refugees are able to return to their original homes? (Small caveat here: different families have moved in to many of the houses that these refugees were forced to abandon.) Another thing to keep in mind: to administration officials in charge of managing this issue, this is a strategic as well as a moral concern. Last time I checked, large refugee populations whose grievances are continuously ignored make for some rather unstable regional dynamics.