By KIRK W. JOHNSON | Op-Ed Contributor
December 15, 2006
I RECENTLY HEARD FROM an Iraqi friend of mine, whose identity I am compelled to conceal. Until a month ago, Y was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development, helping in its multibillion-dollar effort to rebuild Iraq. After two years of sneaking into the Green Zone to work for the United States, his identity was exposed.
He was spotted leaving a checkpoint by someone from his neighborhood. The next day he found a note on his front steps that said, “We are going to cut off your heads and throw them in the trash.” Beside it was the severed head of a small dog, writhing with maggots and flies.
Sadly, it wasn’t the first time I’d heard of such threats. A year ago, when I was working for the USAID on the reconstruction in Fallouja, the first of many Iraqi employees was forced to flee the country. Insurgents raked her house with bullets after discovering that she was working for the Americans.
Despite the bubble we built around our “Emerald City” in Baghdad, any Iraqi (or LES — locally engaged staff — in State Department parlance) works for the Americans at great risk. In a November 2005 cable leaked to the Washington Post, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad reported that “two of our LES employees have been gunned down in execution-style murders, and two others barely escaped a similar fate in August. Our LES employees live in fear of being identified with the Embassy of the U.S.”
Months later, in June 2006, embassy officials wrote of an increasingly bleak situation for their Iraqi staff: “Employees began reporting a change in demeanor of guards at the Green Zone checkpoints. They seemed to be more militia-like, in some cases seemingly taunting. One employee asked us to explore getting her press credentials because the guards had held her embassy badge up and proclaimed loudly … ‘Embassy’ as she entered. Such information is a death sentence if overheard by the wrong people.” The message continues: “A few staff members approached us to ask what provisions would we make for them if we evacuate.” The answer, shamefully, is none.
And there are also no formal policies or mechanisms to help Iraqis such as Y. Though the USAID might have wanted to do more, the best it could offer Y was a short-term stay within its Green Zone compound, a non-solution that would likely exacerbate his situation.
The U.S. Embassy might have granted him a visa, had it ever opened a visa processing center. But probably not. Though Congress passed legislation last year to grant special visas to those who serve as translators for the military, there are no provisions made for Iraqis who have worked with distinction on the civilian side.
So, with little more than a “good luck” from us, Y and his wife packed what they could carry, hugged their loved ones goodbye and fled the country.
According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 1.6 million people have fled Iraq since the invasion, and recent estimates show their numbers increasing by about 100,000 each month. More than 1.5 million Iraqis have been displaced by violence within their country, a number growing at the staggering rate of 50,000 per month.
President Bush and Congress bear a moral responsibility to those Iraqis whose lives are imperiled because of their willingness to help us. We need to move swiftly to expand the special immigrant status beyond the military translators to permit these Iraqis asylum in our country. The U.S. Embassy should be equipped to issue such visas to Iraqis who already have obtained security clearances to work for our government. I am not advocating absorbing every Iraqi displaced by violence, but rather, offering a life preserver to Iraqis who believed in the U.S. enough to help us when we needed them most. Let us not lengthen the shadow cast by our abandonment of those Iraqis who rebelled against tyranny in 1991 and 1996.
Beyond any moral considerations, there is a strategic imperative. Behind Afghanistan, Iraq is the greatest producer of refugees in the world. Though most head to Syria or Jordan, the latter of which has begun deporting Iraqi refugees, the entire region is warily eyeing the influx of the needy. Where large numbers of refugees go, instability has a nasty tendency to follow. Protests broke out in Cairo this month when Iraqis demanded that their children be allowed to attend Egyptian schools.
Meanwhile, the budget for the UNHCR’s Iraq program — which could help ease the strain on governments in the region — was halved for the coming year. Its current budget of $29 million is only 60% funded. (By comparison, the U.S. military spends more than $29 million in Iraq every three hours.) The president needs to lead the international donor community by dramatically increasing our financial support to the UNHCR’s program for the coming year, enabling it to properly identify and assist refugees. Our policy of indifference will further strain our relations with Iraq’s neighbors, who are already apprehensive about the swelling ranks of unemployed and hopeless Iraqis.
In the U.S., a great number of services exist for refugees, but they have to first reach American soil. In fiscal year 2005, the most recent figures available, there were 198 visas issued to Iraqis — nearly all of whom had applied before the war. Some reports indicate a similar number resettled in fiscal year 2006. The Bush administration has authorized only 500 visas for 2007. Though he has the legal authority to admit 20,000 more, Bush has avoided the resettlement of Iraqi refugees because of “the psychological message it would send, that [Iraq] is a losing cause,” according to Arthur Dewey, his former assistant secretary of State for refugee affairs. This is an immigration policy that careens toward moral cowardice.
I am trying to help Y obtain asylum here. This seems to me the least the U.S. can do to repay his commitment. He is now on a short-term visa in a Persian Gulf country, frantically searching for any job, and for help. In closing a despairing message to me last week, he wrote, “Maybe I will be forced to go back to Iraq to lose my life.” He has only a few weeks left before he and his wife will likely be made to return to Iraq, to the death threat that awaits them.
KIRK W. JOHNSON, an Arabist, worked for the USAID as regional coordinator on reconstruction in Fallouja in 2005.