Why the United States must welcome Iraqi refugees.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Nov. 15 2007 4:28 PM

The Next Phase of the Iraq War

Why we must welcome thousands of Iraqi refugees to the United States.

Iraqi refugees. Click image to expand.
Iraqi refugees in Syria

Rarely do morality and strategy come together in the Middle East—particularly in the case of Iraq. Yet there is one area where the right thing for Iraq is also the best option for America's long-term interests: preventing the Iraqi refugee crisis from further destabilizing the region. So far, the debate in the United States has focused on the fates of Iraqis who have worked with U.S. diplomats and soldiers, as translators and so on. Although these individuals are owed a special debt, our responsibility does not end there. The United States should accept tens of thousands of refugees and must encourage other major powers to do the same. Washington should also initiate a program to boost the capacity of neighboring states to host refugees and prevent them from becoming a source of instability.

Although casualty reports dominate the headlines, Iraq is also suffering a staggering exodus of refugees. More than 2 million Iraqis—from a total population of 27 million—have fled the chaos, and the numbers grow every day. (Even more Iraqis have fled their homes but have resettled in other parts of Iraq, thus technically avoiding the label "refugee.") So far, the migrants have clustered in nations close to Iraq, particularly in Syria and Jordan. U.S. efforts to help these refugees have ranged from feeble to nonexistent. The United States has so far taken in barely more than 1,000 Iraqi refugees but will reportedly boost this to 12,000 next year: a significant percentage increase on the surface but only when the absurdly low base rate is considered.


It is both morally abhorrent and strategically ill-advised to abandon these refugees. To state the obvious, the U.S. failure to establish security in Iraq drove them to leave their homes. Literally millions of people have fled under horrific circumstances, and the United States bears much of the responsibility. Americans may, understandably, say that they can no longer sacrifice to bring stability to Iraq, but that does not excuse us from the broader duty to help those who continue to suffer.

Putting aside our moral responsibility, the United States needs to take in refugees to offset significant strategic risks. The 1948 Israeli war of independence produced more than 700,000 refugees. Almost 60 years later, the region still suffers from the failure to solve this refugee problem. The Palestinian refugee crisis contributed to wars between Israel and its neighbors in 1956, 1967, and 1982, as well as to Israel's constant terrorism problem.

Few Iraqi refugees are incorporated into the nations that are hosting them, but there is no prospect that they will return to Iraq in large numbers in the near future. It would not be surprising if, 20 years from now, millions of Iraqis still lived outside their home country. In other words, this problem will not disappear if we ignore it.

As with the Palestinian problem, Iraq's refugees could generate numerous regional crises. Large refugee flows can overstrain the economies and even change the demographic makeup of small or weak states, upsetting what is already a delicate political balance. One million Iraqi refugees is a substantial addition to Jordan's population of less than 6 million. At times, the refugees simply bring the war with them: Fighters mingle with noncombatant refugees and launch attacks back in their home countries, while those who drove them out continue the fight in the refugees' new bases.

After the Rwandan genocide in 1994, for example, Hutu perpetrators fled to neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and continued to launch cross-border raids against Rwanda's new Tutsi-led government, which had ousted them. The Hutu fighters recruited in refugee camps, using them as bases in which to plan, organize, and launch attacks. Not surprisingly, the new Rwandan government began to attack the camps, precipitating a civil war in DRC that led to the collapse of the regime there and the death of millions. Neighboring governments may try to defend new arrivals from attacks by their enemies or exploit the refugees to fight battles on the government's behalf. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Iran armed Iraqi refugees who had fled there and used them as a proxy army, the Badr Corps, against Saddam's Iraq. These fighters have returned to Iraq, and many have joined the Iraqi police and military. Some Iraqi politicians still accuse them of surreptitiously working for Iran.

Refugee camps can also be incubators for terrorist groups. Young men—bored, embittered, and accustomed to a world of violent politics—are natural recruits. Many Palestinian refugees flocked to join terrorist groups, preferring radical solutions to the endless failed attempts to address their plight peacefully.



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Even When They Go to College, the Poor Sometimes Stay Poor

Republicans Want the Government to Listen to the American Public on Ebola. That’s a Horrible Idea.

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Tom Hanks Has a Short Story in the New Yorker. It’s Not Good.

Brow Beat

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 7:13 PM Deadly Advice When it comes to Ebola, ignore American public opinion: It’s ignorant and misinformed about the disease.
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 6:32 PM Taylor Swift’s Pro-Gay “Welcome to New York” Takes Her Further Than Ever From Nashville 
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.