U.S. Doing Little for Iraqi Refugees


Whatever you may think of the United States’ involvement in Iraq, there is no denying the fact that it has had a devastating impact on the lives of the 3.9 million people uprooted and displaced from their homes. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 2 million people have fled to neighboring countries seeking refuge and that roughly 1.9 million people have been forced to flee their homes but remain within Iraq. Each month, 50,000 people pack up their belongings – or, in some cases, leave without any chance to pack or say goodbye – and flee to neighboring countries or other areas of Iraq in search of a safe haven.

So what has the U.S. government done to staunch the flow of refugees and to assist the neediest? The U.S. government has offered to resettle 7,000 refugees. This number is shockingly low, especially in light of the United States’ strong presence in Iraq and the undeniable relationship between the United States’ intervention and the current refugee crisis.

What’s more: current U.S. immigration law would likely bar many of the most desperate and deserving of refugees from availing themselves of U.S. protection. The material support provision bars admission to any non-citizen who has provided material support – something as insignificant as a glass of water – to any group using weapons other than for mere personal gain. This broad provision bars many bona fide refugees from seeking protection in the United States, including those who have provided this support under duress and those who have supported groups that fight to bring an end to totalitarian regimes. The U.S. government has conceded that as interpreted, this provision of the law would have the effect of barring from admission to the United States those Iraqis who aided U.S. troops in finding Jessica Lynch. Indeed, this provision has been used to bar from admission the Montagnards – Vietnamese troops who fought alongside U.S. troops during the Vietnam War.

The United States government must increase the number of refugees from Iraq that it admits as a part of the overseas refugee program, and it must remove those aspects of the material support provisions that bar refugees who have acted in good conscience from receiving U.S. protection. I urge all students at HLS to contact their legislators to advocate for sensible policies that favor the admission of Iraqi refugees.

Next Thursday (April 26), Bill Frelick, the Refugee Policy Director at Human Rights Watch will be speaking at HLS on the current situation for refugees and displaced persons in Iraq. The talk is at 3 p.m. in Austin West.

Molly Thomas-Jensen is a student at Harvard Law School.

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