Iraq, Refugees, and Responsibility

By Donna R. Gabaccia, Professor of History and Director, Immigration History Research Center

Here in Minnesota, where refugees form a larger part of the foreign-born population than they do anywhere else in the U.S., it’s easy to assume that the U.S. offers refuge and a peaceful landing to most of the displaced persons of the world. Many of the refugees currently in the upper Midwest—certainly the Hmong, Somalians, and Vietnamese—fled regions that had seen both significant political violence and the engagement of U.S. military forces. So are we likely to see a large flow of refugees from Iraq in the years ahead?

Maybe not.

The emerging refugee crisis in Iraq provides a surprising introduction to larger patterns of refugee distribution around the world. This week the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) announced that during parts of the past year as many as 100,000 persons a month have fled Iraq, largely to escape the escalating violence there
Yet a report by the refugee advocacy group Human Rights Watch suggests that in 2006 the U.S. resettled only 202 refugees from Iraq, with plans to re-settle perhaps 500 more in the year ahead. By contrast, Sweden welcomed 2300 refugees from Iraq in 2005 and 8951 in 2006.

Why Sweden? Relatively welcoming laws of asylum provide only part of the answer. Even before the U.S. military deposed Saddam Hussein, 80,000 Iraqi’s lived in Sweden; they have become the foundation for—and provided aid to-- what scholars call a “chain migration,? in which friends, relatives, and acquaintances, and co-ethnics follow previous migrants to their new homes.

Most persons who flee natural disasters and political violence hope to return home. They rarely travel very far—at least at first. According to U.N. data, there are about 20.8 million refugees and internally displaced persons (people who remain within their own countries but who have fled local and regional violence or natural disaster) worldwide. Most have fled homes in Africa and Asia and the vast majority of these have sought refuge in those same two regions.

These patterns hold true even where U.S. military action has given the U.S. a sizeable, and often controversial, role in the homelands of refugees. Most who escaped Afghanistan during the violence that accompanied first Taliban rule and then U.S. military engagement to oust the Taliban fled to nearby Pakistan.

Similiary, to date, Jordan, Syria and Egypt have been the destinations for the largest groups of refugees from Iraq.

The case of Afghanistan’s refugees suggests a possible scenario for the future of Iraq’s refugees. After years of housing 2.6 million refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan now seeks to close its refugee camps, hoping to re-patriate the Afgani living in them. Unfortunately, many refugees remain fearful to return home so some as-yet undetermined numbers of Afghani refugees will undoubtedly soon be looking for more distant places of asylum.

U.N. evidence suggests that when refugees look for more-distant homes, many more find a place in Europe than in the United States.

The Hmong refugees of the upper Midwest (most whom also lived long years in refugee camps in southeast Asia) mounted a years-long campaign to convince the U.S. that it had a special responsibility to provide refuge to a group that had been a U.S. ally during the Vietnam war.

Most refugees from Iraq did not flee the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. They have tried to escape the political violence that has accompanied Hussein’s ousting. What, if any, responsibility does the U.S. have for assisting the millions of Iraqi who have fled their homes?

This may be a complicated question for Americans to answer, but it is not a question that is likely to disappear any time soon.


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This page contains a single entry by Dan Ott published on January 19, 2007 12:32 PM.

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