The bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of Shiite Islam’s holiest shrines, ushered in one of the bloodiest episodes of the Iraq war. After its gilded dome was ripped open to the sky, sectarian strife exploded. The day after the bombing in February 2006, dozens of Sunni mosques were attacked, many people were killed and a period of massive displacement began. Millions of Iraqis fled to Syria and Jordan if they could, or relocated within Iraq if they could not.
Today, almost four years later, the International Rescue Committee estimates that there are still between 1 million and 2 million Iraqi refugees outside the country and another 2 million displaced people inside. As the United States winds down its presence, many of these Iraqis can’t go home because of continuing suicide bombings and other violence, but have yet to resettle elsewhere. Particularly vulnerable if they try to return are those who allied themselves with the U.S., working as translators, cooks, drivers, assistants or in any capacity with the military, contractors or businesses.
The United States was embarrassingly slow to help this category of refugees resettle, dragging its feet until Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) insisted the nation had a moral obligation to do so and spearheaded bipartisan legislation to facilitate the process. President Bush signed the 2008 Defense Authorization Act, which established a special immigrant visa for Iraqis targeted because of their affiliation with the United States.
This year, for the first time since 2003, the U.S. exceeded its resettlement target, helping 18,000 Iraqis begin lives in America. That’s a big increase over the 12,000 in 2008 and a huge gain over the paltry few hundred admitted in the first years of the war. Some procedural changes have allowed this, such as the decision to let refugees be processed directly from Iraq. Until last year, they were required to leave and apply from another country. Washington deserves a pat on the back, and a big push to do more. Sweden admitted 40,000 Iraqis in 2007; we should exceed that.
The United Nations estimates that about 88,000 Iraqis still need resettling, and the U.S. is expected, ultimately, to take half of them. Iraq also must become more fully engaged, creating a reconciliation process between hostile factions and resolving housing issues so refugees can return home in meaningful numbers.
Now that the U.S. has the political will to address the crisis, we must do so efficiently and humanely. That means swifter processing of refugees, more aid for countries now hosting most of them and, when the time comes, services to ease the transition of displaced Iraqis to the U.S. Even as we pull out of Iraq, we cannot leave behind our obligation to these refugees.