Millions of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons struggle today throughout the world in limbolike situations. Some, like those in Palestine, have been “warehoused” for generations. Children born in refugee camps and other confined settlements grow up, start families of their own and, in some situations, pass into old age. Often deprived of free movement and the right to earn a livelihood in their host country, they endure an uncertain existence that offers little hope for achieving the kinds of basic human rights that the authors of the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees had in mind.
Both refugees and asylum seekers flee their home countries because of “a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” Those defined as refugees by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees can hope to be accepted in another country for resettlement. Asylum seekers, on the other hand, unable to count on their own governments to protect them, flee to other countries in search of safety. There, through ever more arduous procedures, they must establish their claim to remain or face forcible deportation back to their country of origin—often to face imprisonment or death, dangers that led them to flee in the first place. Iraqis head the list of asylum seekers in industrialized nations.
In fact, Iraq now leads worldwide in the number of people forced from their homes because of ongoing violence. The U.N.H.C.R. estimates that almost five million are in need of humanitarian care. Some have been allowed to enter the United States as refugees. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, however, their numbers fell. For the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2008, the U.S. State Department agreed to admit 12,000. The good news is that not only was that number achieved, but that the actual number admitted was nearly 14,000. But as advocates also point out, given the huge number of Iraqis who fled to surrounding countries, like Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt, the number admitted here is distressingly small. Some of the host countries to which they fled tend to view them more as “guests” than as refugees, with few rights or opportunities for work. There they lead a twilight existence, exploited by employers in informal work situations as they try to support their families. Many are health professionals unable to secure employment as such, and their flight has created a brain drain from Iraq that will take years to overcome. Over two million Iraqis, however, were not able even to cross the border into nearby countries. They are now internally displaced, having fled their homes yet remaining within their country, in frequently squalid conditions with relatively little help from the nation’s government.
Barriers to admission have grown stricter for both asylum seekers and refugees not only in the United States but in other industrialized countries as well. Some nations have in a sense extended their actual land borders by implementing various forms of interdiction. Italian authorities regularly patrol their surrounding waters to intercept rickety boats filled with desperate emigrants from poor and violence-ridden countries hopeful of finding meager means of support for themselves and their families. Many drown in the attempt, either as their boats founder in the sea or because unscrupulous owners throw them overboard. The interdiction of Haitians at sea by the United States is another example of such an extending of borders.
Both at the national level in the United States and on the international level among other industrialized countries, policy makers need to be far more mindful of the needs of refugees fleeing persecution and civil conflicts, as well as the life-threatening poverty endemic in the poorest nations. The United States, regrettably, has moved far from the invitation implied in the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, lines from Emma Lazarus’s famous poem “The New Colossus”: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” The huddled masses will remain largely where they are until Western countries like the United States and other wealthy nations agree to resettle far larger numbers of vulnerable groups.
Given its central responsibility for the devastation that has taken place in Iraq, which remains a violent and divided society, the United States has a special moral duty to help the millions of Iraqis displaced from their homes. It should play a special role in assisting refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East, as well as from other parts of the world.