Iraq’s refugee crisis: echoes of the Holocaust

Former US ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke has an essay in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, “Defying Orders, Saving Lives: Heroic Diplomats of the Holocaust,” which draws an unsettlingly valid analogy to contemporary Iraq. Holbrooke outlines the cases of Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg, Portugal’s Aristedes de Sousa Mendes and the USA’s Hiram Bingham IV, who all risked their careers and even their lives to help Jews escape Axis Europe in defiance of their own governments’ policies. Holbrooke notes that asylum policies are similarly restrictive today, even as Iraq approaches a genocidal situation—and asks where such heroes as Wallenberg are in the face of Iraq’s refugee crisis:

The situations brave men such as Wallenberg, Sousa Mendes, and Bingham faced are not just ancient history. They are similar to what is happening now in Iraq. Since the 2003 invasion, the U.S. government has allowed only 466 Iraqi refugees to enter the United States, even though more than two million have fled the country (mostly to Jordan and Syria). Among those desperately seeking safety are thousands of Iraqis who worked with or supported U.S. personnel in Iraq. They are at the greatest possible risk. In an embarrassing interview recently, Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, told 60 Minutes that the small number and slow processing is the result of new, post-9/11 security requirements. Even Iraqis who were given security clearances to work with U.S. troops in sensitive positions in Iraq have to wait several years to get approved. Sauerbrey boasted about increasing this year’s Iraqi refugee quota to 7,000 — still a pathetically small number given U.S. responsibility for the desperate plight of fleeing Iraqis. Under similar circumstances, between 1975 and 1980, Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter took in over 500,000 refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia. Those refugees were initially put into camps of “first asylum” for security screening before being permitted to settle in the United States, where today they are a vibrant part of American life.

In fact, if it were not for Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who has made refugees a prime concern for over 40 years, the Bush administration would probably still be ignoring the issue; President George W. Bush has yet to mention it in public. That the sorry story of the 1930s is being repeated — with so little public outrage — is more than disturbing; it is shameful. Why is the White House doing so little? And where are the Binghams and Sousa Mendeses of 2007?

Every age will present people in positions of authority with similar difficult dilemmas. The details will vary, but the challenge will be the same. If you were in such a situation, would you realize it? And if you did, what would you do?

See our last posts on Iraq and the struggle for the legacy of World War II.