WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration’s cautious approach to Iraqi refugees offers little hope for those trapped in a growing humanitarian crisis that could begin to breed Islamist militancy if left unchecked, experts say.
The United States is the biggest aid donor to an estimated 4.2 million Iraqis driven from their homes. But experts say assistance from the United States and other Western nations is only a tiny fraction of what may be needed to stabilize the biggest Middle East refugee crisis since 1948.
Host countries in the region, particularly Jordan and Syria, have been overwhelmed by more than 2 million refugees and could need billions of dollars in aid to cope with the social and economic strains.
Experts from nongovernmental organizations, aid agencies and think tanks also say alleviating suffering among those refugees and another 2 million people displaced inside Iraq could require hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to be resettled in countries including the United States.
“The humanitarian need inside Iraq and in neighboring countries has been ignored to such an extent that both Jordan and Syria, out of desperation, have introduced visa requirements that effectively close all exit doors for Iraqis,” said Andrew Harper, who heads the Iraq Support Unit of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
But Washington is unlikely to move aggressively, given tougher security restrictions on immigration after the September 11 attacks in 2001 and concern that the continued fighting in Iraq could pose a danger of insurgents posing as refugees.
Without U.S. leadership, experts say other countries, especially European nations already jittery about Islamist violence, will not come to the rescue either.
“Resettlement will increase but I don’t expect it to be more than a drop in the bucket. The tolerance of the rest of the world for absorbing 2 million to 4 million Iraqis probably is not adequate,” said Kathleen Newland of the Migration Policy Institute.
The United States has accepted large numbers of refugees from other regions in the past 30 years, including about 1 million from Vietnam, 600,000 from the former Soviet Union and 157,000 from Bosnia and Kosovo.
But the response to the Iraqi crisis has been far smaller.
The Bush administration has admitted just over 1,600 Iraqis since resettlements began in April and expects to bring in 12,000 more in the next 12 months, more than half of the 20,000 Iraqis referred for global resettlement by the UNHCR.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress are pressing for a larger influx, with special preference for Iraqis who have worked with the United States. The Bush administration has also appointed senior officials to deal with bureaucratic logjams.
Meanwhile, Washington has contributed more than $200 million to programs that provide assistance, schooling and health care to refugees and internally displaced persons.
But critics say U.S. aid has been a fraction of the $333 million Washington spends each day on the war. The intended U.S. resettlement rate of 1,000 Iraqis per month also pales against the 2,000 per day made homeless by violence.
“People believe the U.S. has a special responsibility to deal with this crisis. But we’re doing nothing,” said Amelia Templeton of Human Rights First.
Without major change, Iraqis face increasingly dire conditions and animosity from foreign hosts who have seen prices skyrocket for food, fuel, water and housing.
Islamist militancy could also take root if the crisis is allowed to spawn an underclass of poorly educated, poorly integrated Iraqi youths.
“It’s pretty worrying from a security standpoint for those countries, for Iraq and the West,” said a Democratic congressional aide who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Added Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch: “It’s a formula with some very dangerous potential: people need to get out, are desperate to get out, but are being forceably kept in place.”