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Iraqi Refugees in the United States: In Dire Straits


27-09-09, 04:45 PM

  : 1

Iraqi Refugees in the United States: In Dire Straits


Iraqi Refugees in the United States

One of the most negative and underrepresented consequences of the Iraq war has been the displacement of millions of Iraqis, and it is thousands of these refugees that have been brought over to the United States through the U.S. resettlement program. With World Refugee Day approaching (June 20), the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank, hosted an event in partner with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to raise awareness on challenges being faced by refugees in America. The conclusion from the distinguished panel of speakers? With the current unemployment rate at 9.4%, the nations economic woes have left many Iraqi refugees unemployed and homeless, exposing obvious flaws in the resettlement program that has to be changed.


In 1980, the Refugee Act established the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) and regularized the process by which refugees come to the country. The U.S. president, in consultation with Congress, determines the exact number of refugees to be resettled in a given year.

As an integral part of U.S. foreign policy, resettlement in the United States is one of the ways the government protects refugees, reflecting the humanitarian principles of Americans to protect the vulnerable and persecuted. Resettlement gives refugees a second chance in life, in which they are freely able to enjoy the safety, freedom, and stability they lacked in their home country. They have full legal rights to live and work in the United States and can apply to become U.S. citizens after five years.

Every year about one percent of the worlds refugees are offered resettlement. As a leader in resettlement, the United States has welcomed 2.6 million refugees since 1975. In fiscal year 2008, the United States resettled over 60,000 refugees, and of those, about 9,200 were resettled by IRC. According to official projections, as many as 75,000 refugees are expected to be resettled in fiscal year 2009.


Because of the severity of the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, displaced Iraqis are now being resettled in the United States at an increasing rate, as evidence by the number that has gone from 202 in 2006 to approximately 17,000 in fiscal year 2009. In February 2009, the IRCs Commission on Iraqi Refugees traveled to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and northern Iraq to assess the status of uprooted Iraqis in the region. What they discovered, as stated at the event by George Rupp, President and CEO of IRC, were the severely disheartening conditions being endured by the refugeeswithout legal status or rights to work they were being exploited and abused. Dr. Rupp spoke further about how he considers the resettlement program an essential piece to the toolkit.


With the IRC as a perfect partner to both the government and the U.S. Refugees Program, Iraqi refugees initially are given assistance with short-term housing, enrollment in English classes, enrollment in school for their children, employment, and more. Finally in the land of the free, but where are the jobs? The crisis on our own doorstep is the worsening recession. As stated by another speaker, Robin Dunn-Marcos (Executive Director of IRC in Phoenix, Arizona), Iraqi refugees are struggling now more than ever before with finding employment, leading hundreds of refugees at the very real risk of homelessness during their first year of arrival.

Ms. Dunn-Marcos recalled a story of one of her Iraqi clients who simply asked this: Didnt they do the math before they brought us here? Now, unlike ever before, every case presents a challenge beyond the system for the IRC. As statistics show, the self-sufficiency rate for fiscal year 2007 was 80%, 2008 was 50%, and the current is 10%. When asked why the United States continues to bring in Iraqi refugees knowing that they cannot properly provide for them now, Ms. Dunn-Marcos replied that the program saves lives.


While there are positive examples of refugee employment and successful adaptation, most Iraqi refugees are actually facing despair and frustration in the United States. Government support is currently down to 8 months, a number that has not been increased to keep pace with inflation. Challenges faced by Iraqi refugees include difficulty finding a job even with bachelors and masters degrees, facing evictions from their homes, and inability to support their families on such limited public assistance.

Despite these difficulties, resettlement remains the only option still for thousands of Iraqis who are facing war and persecution in their home country or in exile in other parts of the Middle East. The resettlement program is specifically designed for refugees to become self-sufficient quickly and to find work in a short period of time, which means the program severely lacks long-term support. And, because of this, refugees are falling deeper through the cracks of Americas recession. Kathleen Newland, co-founder of MPI and a member of the Board of Directors of the IRC, addressed how the current economic circumstances make it unusually challenging and how some are unable to find work within their field. According to Ms. Newland, many refugees are not having their credentials recognized in an expeditious wayi.e. Iraqi doctors working at McDonalds, if they even have a job at all. The panel felt that this is an extraordinary waste of human capital.

In order to assure that the refugees are able to integrate into American society quickly, safely and with dignity, the structure of the domestic resettlement program must be significantly improved. During the event, Robert Carey, the IRCs Vice President of Resettlement and Migration Policy, spoke about the need for immediate long-term change rather than a Band-Aid (temporary) solution, and how it is unacceptable to bring in refugees without providing a safety net for them.


As further stated by Mr. Carey, the Iraqi refugee program is a system in crisis that is failing to meet the mandate to protect and serve. During the event, the speakers mentioned how the resettlement program is dangerously underfunded and how the services are inconsistent, from state-to-state to community-to-community. They made recommendations on behalf of the IRCs Commission on Iraqi Refugees, such as increased federal assistance, which means an investment from the government on a long-term level. What it will take is Congress holding hearings to appropriate more funds for the program and extending the time frame during which refugees are eligible for services.

In addition, it is important to avoid the resettlement lottery because refugees should receive a uniform and realistic package of services regardless of the state in which they reside. Currently, those in California and Florida are in a better situation than those resettled in other parts of the country because certain states offer more generous levels of public assistance.

Another recommendation is flexibility, which means that the one size fits all approach of insisting on early employment is not necessarily the best policy for many refugees, particularly during this economic downturn. Many Iraqi refugees arrive with high levels of educational and professional experience, therefore funds need to be spent on recertification programs to ensure that they can enter the professional workforce. Also, it is unrealistic to expect rapid employment from vulnerable individuals like widows with young children or those suffering from high degrees of trauma and depression due to war and persecution.

Better preparation for resettlement will be another key factor when it comes to improving the system. When applying for admission to the United States through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, Iraqis must be fully briefed on the challenges that will arise when resettling, not just the benefits. It is only fair for them to be well-informed so they can better prepare themselves for such a life-altering move.

Lastly, a comprehensive study needs to be conducted to examine the U.S. program for resettlement and assistance, which has not been thoroughly examined since 1980, the year it was formally created. This study should take into consideration how the needs of different refugee populations will vary from country to country and person to person. For example, some refugees arrive to the U.S. as professionals with university degrees, while others are illiterate in even their own language


Dire circumstances plaguing refugees in the United States are not just confined to Iraqis because, unfortunately, this crisis has become the norm for most other refugees resettled in the country. Currently, the underfunded resettlement program is serving as a feeder into institutionalized homelessness and poverty, and a thorough review of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program is crucial to fixing that. The U.S. government must offer a viable safety net to Iraqi refugees because they are an economic and cultural asset to the community.

As far as receiving a response from the Obama administration, the IRC has yet to hear anything because President Obamas nomination of Eric Schwartz to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) still has not been confirmed by Congress. However, it must be noted that many inside the government are already aware of the problems and the IRC hopes that once key people, such as Mr. Schwartz, are in position, the issue will then be rectified. As stated by Ms. Newland, there is great importance to this issue and it is our responsibility to make sure that Iraqi refugees do not fall off the radar screen.





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