April 9, 2008

Panel Discusses Iraq Refugee Crisis In Preparation for Benefit Concert

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According to the International Rescue Committee’s website, more than four million Iraqis have been uprooted and unable to return to their homes since the beginning of the Iraq War, lacking adequate food, clean water, shelter and medical care.
Last night, Cornell’s Big Red Relief sponsored a panel discussion on the current refugee crisis in Iraq in anticipation of an upcoming benefit concert this Friday.
Jonathan Ray ’09, co-president of Big Red Relief, said that the organization’s goal this year is to raise funds for IRC. The IRC, which was founded in 2005 in response to the south Asian tsunami, is currently working to distribute emergency supplies to displaced Iraqi families in the Middle East, sponsoring learning and recreational activities for children without access to such programs and advocating for the rights of refugees who do not hold legal status in Iraq’s neighboring countries. [img_assist|nid=29662|title=Crisis review|desc=Speakers talk about the status of Iraqi refugees at a panel discussion sponsored by the Big Red Relief in Kennedy Hall.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Panel speakers included Judge Ra’id Juhi Hamadi Al-Saíedi, the Clark Middle East Fellow at the law school and former chief investigative judge of the Iraqi High Tribunal; Maureen White, member of the board of directors of the IRC; Prof. David Siddhartha Patel, government; and Omer Bajwa, the Muslim chaplain at Anabel Taylor Hall. The three panelists provided different perspectives the refugee crisis.
“The talk really demonstrated the complexity of the issue and debunked the idea that there’s no easy solution,” Cassie Robertson ’09 said.
Phil Caruso ’08 said that as a student and as someone entering the military in two months, it was “special to hear from people with experience in this issue. I wasn’t aware of the problem and it is important knowledge to have.”
Bajwa, the panel discussion moderator, opened the discussion by telling the story of an anonymous Iraqi refugee he called “Andy.” Andy and his family are Iraqi refugees who came to the U.S. and are now living in Ithaca, after struggling under constant threat of attack from the militias who disapproved of the fact that he was working as a translator for the U.S. military.
Patel set the political stage for the ongoing refugee crisis, noting that of the 18 benchmarks set by President George W. Bush’s New Way Forward plan to increase the number of troops in Iraq, none of the benchmarks made mention of the refugees. According to Patel, only three of the 18 benchmarks have been met, and very little real political progress has been achieved.
While Patel said, “violence is definitely down,” he acknowledged this is mainly because the U.S. has divided the insurgents against themselves. Furthermore, millions of Iraqi refugees will eventually have to return home.
Al-Saíedi discussed some of the reasons why Iraqis have been displaced, citing religious conflicts between the Sunni and Shiite, one’s membership in the Ba’ath Party and work for the U.S. or U.K.
“If you are one of these, there’s nowhere to live inside Iraq,” he said.
However, once leaving home, refugees often face a multitude problems. They have no security, no homes and little chance of education.
“They miss their friends, their history, their home, their language,” Al-Saíedi said.
This problem is “our responsibility,” he said. “[It’s the responsibility of] the Iraqi government, the U.S. government, the U.K. government and even the United Nations. [The U.N.] is responsible for protecting all of humanity.”
White shared her experiences when the IRC went to Iraq to meet with government officials and refugees. She said there was “something acutely disturbing” about the urban refugees, describing their situation as a “hidden crisis.” Iraqi refugees are not collected in camps, White explained, but are alone and isolated in the cities. Since they lack legal status, they have no legitimacy and fear detentions, deportations and fines. They live in a “nightmarish hell of fear, even of going outside their homes,” she said.
Additionally, refugees do not have access to basic healthcare or education. They often suffer from a higher “degree of traumatization” than most refugees, she explained, because they have witnessed bombings, kidnappings and torture.
While said that this humanitarian problem will eventually turn into a political problem, when this generation of uneducated Iraqi refugees grow up to become illiterate, hostile, and, eventually, terrorists.
White added that it is “morally deplorable” that out of the more than four million refugees in Iraq, the U.S. has only committed to admit 12,000. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. took 900,000 refugees. During the Bosnian War, the U.S. processed more than 200,000 refugees.
The U.S. capacity to absorb refugees when it wants to is enormous, she said, but the fact that the U.S. “lacks political commitment is morally reprehensible.”
To alleviate this crisis, White recommended that the U.S. increase aid, the Syrian and Jordanian governments institutionalize a method of granting legal status to refugees, the international community provide bilateral aid and the U.S. increase the refugee intake to 30,000 per year.
“Don’t give up,” Al-Saíedi said. “We have to fix this situation.”