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Worldview: Bush shamefully flees Iraqi refugee crisis

In several recent speeches on Iraq, there was one issue President Bush never mentioned. That's the issue of Iraqi refugees.

In several recent speeches on Iraq, there was one issue President Bush never mentioned. That's the issue of Iraqi refugees.

More than two million Iraqi refugees are struggling to survive outside Iraq, the bulk of them in neighboring Jordan and Syria. Only a small percentage are rich former Baathist supporters of Saddam Hussein. Most are middle-class Iraqis, including thousands of Christians who were "ethnically cleansed" from urban neighborhoods and forced to flee for their lives.

Jordan and Syria can't afford to keep them, but they can't go home and are running out of money. Yet the desperate plight of Iraq's refugees isn't one the president wants to highlight - because it underlines how tenuous the situation remains in Iraq.

"These people are the casualties of this war, caught in this horrible position, who can't go back and can't survive where they are, with no future for their kids," says Arlene Flaherty, a staffer for Catholic Relief Services, whose regional office is in Radnor. She recently traveled to Lebanon and Syria to assess the Iraq refugee issue.

Flaherty witnessed an urgent humanitarian crisis on which the United States has a moral obligation to lead.

About 500,000 Iraqi refugees are in Jordan, 1.2 to 1.4 million in Syria, 50,000 in Lebanon, and an additional 100,000 or so elsewhere in the region, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

While stories surfaced last fall of Iraq refugees returning home, this seems to have been "a one-time episode," says Flaherty, mainly "people who ran out of resources." That return flow has apparently slowed to a trickle, matched by continued outflows. On her recent trip, Flaherty adds, "I didn't talk with one family who felt they had an option to return."What makes this situation so tragic is that the refugees seem consigned to limbo. They are on their own, most living off savings and unable to work legally. Small and relatively poor countries such as Jordan and Syria can't afford to pay for schooling and health care for such a large influx. Many refugees have overstayed temporary visas and fear expulsion, which makes them afraid to register for the limited international aid that is available.

And, says Flaherty, "There is donor fatigue in the international community for anything connected with the Iraq war, so it is unlikely that we will get the funding" needed to provide minimal help. UNHCR has issued a regional appeal for $261 million for 2008, but besides the U.S. contribution of $83 million, the appeal remains largely unfunded.

As their savings ebb, refugees are becoming desperate. Stories are emerging of women turning to prostitution to support their families. "In January in Damascus, when it was freezing cold," says Flaherty, she saw "Iraqis squeezed into slumlike apartments without heat or hot water."

These refugees include many solid middle-class professionals whose loss will undermine Iraq's hopes for the future. "We were talking to university professors sitting in a church auditorium," says Flaherty, "just to get a cup of coffee and wondering how they got there. They had lost their country, their status, their friends, and seen horrible violence. No one seems to have a strategy for their return. Countries where they are can't accept them."

The children of these refugees are becoming a lost generation, often without schooling. "This is just the kind of environment that [Islamic] radicals can exploit," Flaherty says.

The United States is taking almost none of these refugees. In fiscal 2007, the administration initially indicated it would accept 7,000 but ultimately took only 1,608. Since Oct. 1, we have accepted only an additional 1,876 Iraqis. Even translators who worked for the U.S. Embassy and military, and have gotten death threats are having an incredibly difficult time obtaining visas for the country they risked their lives to aid.

The United States should be leading an international effort to resolve this issue, and should be admitting more refugees. Iraq's government should be pressed to use surplus oil revenues to pay for refugee care in host countries. Yet, on the subject of Iraqi refugees, there is a deafening silence from the White House.