No Way Home, No Way Out: The Plight of Our Iraqi Allies

Members of The List Project participated in a packed hearing before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) in Washington, D.C., this week. The hearing, entitled “No Way Home, No Way to Escape: The Plight of Iraqi Refugees and Our Iraqi Allies,” was convened by Commission Chairman U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), and Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL). The topic: the urgent need for the U.S. government to create a strategic plan to secure safety for Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people—especially those who have worked for the United States—as U.S. troops withdraw from Iraq.

The hearing was called in large part as a response to The List Project’s May 2010 Report: Tragedy on the Horizon.  In a brief exchange before the hearing began, Secretary Schwartz was heard thanking Kirk Johnson, founder and executive director of The List Project,  for the Report—stating that the State Department had studied it carefully.

Senator Cardin began the hearing by discussing Syria and Jordan’s efforts to manage the influx of Iraqi refugees and the need to provide more funding and support from the US side for UNHCR efforts in these countries. Senator Hastings discussed the progress of the bill he introduced last year, The Iraqi Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement, and Security Act (H.R. 578), which is currently being debated in committee and requires further support to gain passage.

Eric P. Schwartz, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, asserted that the Obama administration is strongly committed to this issue, and stated that there needs to be more congressional interest for this problem to be swiftly addressed.

Ambassador L. Craig Johnstone, president ad interim of Refugees International, recalled his distress over the U.S. government’s lack of contingency planning during the American evacuation from Vietnam in 1975. According to Johnstone, the government response was “one of callous disregard” for the lives of the Vietnamese who helped U.S. forces on the ground. He expressed pride for the American people’s response to this crisis and the push to mobilize the Ford administration to undertake rescue missions.

Johnstone recommended that the U.S. government take responsibility for the situation in Iraq and commit to funding 50 percent of UNHCR appeals (to date, the U.S. government has funded only 23 percent of appeals). He urged the senators to remember that as the United States disengages from the conflict in Iraq, it cannot disengage from its humanitarian obligations, and should prepare for departure in an honorable manner.

Kirk Johnson spoke about his personal experience in Iraq in 2005.  Johnson was working on reconstruction efforts in Baghdad and Fallujah for the U.S. Agency for International Development when Al-Jazeera broadcast various scenes of U.S. abandonment at the end of the Vietnam War. He described the demoralization of his Iraqi colleagues, who asked Johnson whether U.S. troops might do the same in Iraq.

Johnson emphasized that the U.S. government has the opportunity to act in a coordinated and strategic manner to avoid the loss of Iraqi lives. Johnson discussed the success of Operation Pacific Haven under the Clinton administration in 1996, when 7,000 Iraqis, mostly Kurds, were flown to the U.S. military base in Guam, where their refugee applications were processed in a mere 90-120 days. Johnson estimates that there are between 40,000 and 100,000 U.S. affiliated Iraqis who are now under threat from terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq. After providing these grim statistics to the Commission, Johnson expressed optimism that the government would act quickly to confront its moral and strategic imperative.

Michael A. Newton, Professor of the Practice of Law at Vanderbilt University Law School, concluded the witness testimony. Like Johnson, Newton has a personal stake in this issue; while he was serving as an international legal advisor to the Iraqi High Tribunal during the trials of former Ba’athist leaders, he developed a close friendship with Riyadh, one of the top translators. Riyadh was murdered on his doorstep as he left for his job one morning.

Drawing on his experience as a Brigade Judge Advocate (U.S. Army Special Forces) and a Senior Advisor to the Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes at the State Department, Newton said the key to assisting Iraqi refugees was a coordinated interagency effort between Departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security to eliminate delays and inefficiencies in the resettlement process.

The List Project’s Report “Tragedy on the Horizon” can be found at

Key Recommendations outlined in the report include:

For the President

  1. Immediate Contingency Planning for the “Guam Option”
  2. Devote Sufficient Resources and Staff for U.S.-Affiliated and Refugee Processing

For Government Officials at the Departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security

  1. Task Chief of Mission Agencies, Military, Contractors and Implementing Partners with Survey of Iraqi Staff to Estimate Need
  2. Revise Arbitrarily Restrictive Consular Interpretation (Department of State)

For Members of Congress

  1. Hold Congressional Hearing(s) to Oversee Implementation of Visa Programs and Planning for Evacuation of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis during Withdrawal
  2. Devote Sufficient Resources and Staff for U.S.-Affiliated and Refugee Processing

Although Congress and President Obama have many other issues to deal with at the moment, let us hope that the overflow crowd at the hearing indicates renewed interest and commitment to helping our Iraqi allies, just as they have steadfastly helped us.

Written by Rachel Gore, Volunteer Lawyer with the List Project

  • Published: 14 years ago on July 27, 2010
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  • Last Modified: July 27, 2010 @ 11:09 am
  • Filed Under: Uncategorized

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