Abandoned at the Border

By Joseph P. Hoar, a retired Marine general and commander in chief of the United States Central Command from 1991 to 1994 (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 31/08/07):

FOR more than a year, men and women in our armed forces have been urging the United States to bring to safety the Iraqi translators and others who have worked beside them and are now the victims of retaliation. A Marine captain, Zachary Iscol, said he owed his life and the lives of his men to his Iraqi translator. “Just coming to work was an act of heroism and courage on his part,” Captain Iscol said.

On July 7, the administration received another urgent call to action on this issue, this time from Ambassador Ryan Crocker. In a cable to Washington, he laid out the dangers his Iraqi employees faced. “Just last week we recovered and identified the bodies of two … who were kidnapped in May,” he wrote. Mr. Crocker wanted to be able to assure the Iraqis on his staff that they had some hope of receiving refuge in the United States.

It is shameful that more than four years into this war, Iraqis working at our embassy cannot count on the United States to protect them or to help them find a new home when their work with us has made it impossible to survive in their own country.

Similarly, it is both cruel and foolish for the United States to ignore the plight of more than two million others who have fled and are struggling to survive in Syria and Jordan. The United States pledge this week of $30 million to help educate Iraqi refugees in the region is dwarfed by the need.

Dealing with the refugee crisis is vital to the national security of the United States. Continuing indifference to suffering that we had a strong hand in causing will turn our Muslim supporters against us. More important, it repudiates the fundamental values of our country and costs Iraqis their lives.

The administration has promised to resettle 7,000 Iraqi refugees by September. By the beginning of August, it had brought in just 190. Jordan has taken in some 700,000 Iraqi refugees — equivalent to more than 10 percent of its own population. Syria has taken in more than 1.2 million, and significant numbers are in Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and the Persian Gulf states. Unlike the United States, none of these countries are well prepared to integrate refugees. Sectarian fighting has paralyzed the Lebanese government, Jordan is water poor, and Syria struggles with a poor economy and high unemployment. At a recent conference in the region, these countries pleaded for international help to deal with the crisis.

So while tiny Jordan struggles to cope with 700,000 refugees, the United States will not meet a goal of only 7,000. The United States is sending a clear message to the refugees and the countries sheltering them: you are on your own.

Without serious American or other international support, a downward spiral is beginning for the refugees and the Middle East. In Jordan, the cost of living has doubled for all residents, leading to sharp resentment against both the Iraqis and the government. In turn, the Jordanian government has denied most Iraqi refugees the right to work and restricted their access to health care.

Syria, one of the last countries to keep its borders open to the Iraqis, has suggested it cannot continue to do so much longer without some kind of international support. Social services there are collapsing, and poverty has driven many refugees toward desperation.

This strain could all have a terribly destabilizing effect on the Middle East. This year, for the first time, the Jordanian government is giving Iraqi children access to public education — which means keeping 30 schools open for double shifts. By some estimates, half a million Iraqi refugee children are now out of school, and some have missed up to three years of their education. In a region where Al Qaeda is becoming a franchise, ensuring that these children can go to school is as vital to regional security as fighting insurgents in Iraq.

As September comes with no sign of progress in Iraq, momentum is finally building in Congress for a new comprehensive strategy that will at least prevent the instability there from spreading. As a key part of that strategy, the United States must reach out to Iraq’s neighbors — including Syria — and demonstrate a willingness to help support and take in refugees, starting with those who risked their lives to stand with us.