Barely a day goes by when I don't learn a new report about a beleaguered Iraqi refugee, or of an entire family, in desperate need of help. We think hard, within our Voices for Creative Nonviolence network, about ways to build concern for the estimated three million Iraqis who have been displaced from their homes. Ironically, I think some of the people who can best empathize with Iraqi refugees are the U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq, far from their homes and families.
Recently, an A.P. reporter in Baghdad described a town hall meeting which U.S. military officials helped organize in a Shi'ite area of northern Baghdad. ("U.S. takes on community building in Iraq" by Lauren Frayer). Tucked into the article is her observation of two U.S. soldiers who stood guard during the 3-hour meeting. "Outside the auditorium, two U.S. Army snipers clicked their rifles on safety and kicked at tufts of grass to pass the time."
It's easy to imagine the idled soldiers composing letters, mentally, to loved ones, or perhaps pulling out pictures of loved ones, and longing to be home.
Displaced Iraqi refugees describe to us how they want to take care of their children, how they're beset by feelings of uncertainty and anxiety, and how, sometimes, they have a lot of "down time" with no meaningful work. I'm guessing that similar conversations happen amongst U.S. military in Iraq. A major difference is that vast sums of money are spent to maintain the U.S. soldiers in Iraq and to equip them with weapons and supplies.
I suppose it's much more difficult for an analyst employed by a U.S. "think tank" to identify much with the everyday cares and concerns of Iraqi refugees when contemplating ways to build better security for the United States presence in the region.
Kenneth Pollack, Director of Research for the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, recently wrote an article entitled "Iraq Refugees: Carriers of Conflict" which was published in the Atlantic Monthly in November. Most of his article depicts the refugees themselves as "the problem." Pollack cites instances in Middle East history in which refugees have fomented civil unrest; he writes of "sanctuaries for militia groups" wherein militia leaders sometimes become leaders of refugee communities. "Tribal elders and other leaders who might oppose violence may find themselves enfeebled by both the trauma of flight and the loss of their traditional basis of power (typically, control of land). As a result, refugee camps can become deeply radicalized communities, dangerous to their host countries in several ways. The mere presence of militias among the refugees tends to embroil the host country in war by making it a target."
Mr. Pollack's analysis regarding refugees could be reconsidered in light of how many Iraqis might view the presence of U.S. troops who are "displaced" on foreign soil in Iraq. The U.S. troops could be viewed as newcomers bringing conflict with them. Suppose we imagined this excerpt from Mr. Pollack's article as a commentary not on Iraqi refugees but on the U.S. troop presence in Iraq: "Most Iraqi refugees (substitute U.S. troops) are not in camps, but dispersed among local populations. But refugees, (substitute U.S. troops) whether in camps or not, can also corrode state power from the inside, fomenting the radicalization of domestic populations and encouraging rebellion against host governments. The burden of caring for hundreds of thousands of refugees (substitute U.S. troops) is heavy, straining government administrative capacity and possibly eroding public support for regimes shown to be weak, unresponsive, or callous."
In his article, Mr. Pollack doesn't prescribe any ways to alleviate the plight of refugees. Shortly before the article was published, conditions worsened for Iraqi refugees when the budget for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees was cut in half.
From an October IRIN report: "More than three million Iraqis who have been forced to flee their homes to other areas of Iraq and to neighbouring countries are facing what UNHCR describes as a 'very bleak future' after the agency's budget for offices across the region was halved for the coming year," said Andrew Harper, coordinator for the Iraq unit at UNHCR in Geneva. He told IRIN that funds for the agency's Iraq programme have been drastically reduced for 2007 because of donors scaling back their contributions. "Iraq has seen the largest and most recent displacement of any UNHCR project in the world, yet even as more Iraqis are displaced and as their needs increase, the funds to help them are decreasing," said Harper. "This growing humanitarian crisis has simply gone under the radar screen of most donors."
According to some estimates, U.S. taxpayers will be asked to spend close to 2 trillion dollars for the war in Iraq. Feasibly, a generous portion of U.S. wealth and productivity could be directed toward assisting Iraqi refugees and developing a reparations package which could be placed in escrow, under the control of a third party, neutral group for disbursement.
By doing this, we could help uproot the fundamentally cruel unfairness that often causes the conflicts Mr. Pollack wants us to fear.
The narrow focus on Iraqi refugees as potential "carriers" of conflict, coupled with a U.S. foreign policy which has been based on threat and force, suggests that the current administration won't be committed to meeting basic human rights of Iraqi refugees, whether they've been displaced within Iraq or have fled outside of Iraq.
This doesn't lessen our own responsibility to organize nonviolent direct action seeking a U.S. foreign policy based on fairness and justice toward Iraqis. Helping U.S. people develop caring and compassionate views toward all refugees, including Iraqis who were living in their own homes before the U.S. illegally and immorally invaded their country, would be one way to secure a better future for all children.
Kathy Kelly (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence