President Barack Obama reiterated recently that most U.S. troops will soon be departing Iraq, leaving about 50,000 Americans to help maintain the peace and support the Iraqi army and police force. This is good news for our American servicemen, their families and the nation.
But this departure should not be accompanied by a withdrawal of our support for the Iraqi people, particularly for the millions of displaced Iraqis who continue to live in limbo both inside Iraq and in neighboring countries. During a recent mission to observe the situation of the Iraqi displaced, this reality became painfully clear to me.
The humanitarian consequences of this seven-year war on Iraqi civilians are too often unreported in accounts about the situation in Iraq. Since 2003, 2.5 million Iraqis have fled the country, mainly to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, while an additional 2 million have been dislocated from their homes in Iraq.
Neighboring countries have by and large kept the door ajar for Iraqis, but not without creating strains on their own populations and resources. The international community, led by the United States, has provided basic assistance to the refugees and resettled a small fraction to third countries, but a long-term solution to this mass displacement has proven elusive. Too many Iraqi families remain fearful of returning home, but are unable to permanently settle in their host country.
Nevertheless, indications are that we are reducing, not increasing, our support. Currently, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency charged with responding to the refugee crisis, is more than 60 percent short of the funding needed to meet projected needs. The agency also reports that 10,000 refugees designated for resettlement this year have no place to go, as resettlement countries, such as our own, have not agreed to accept a sufficient number.
With the American troop withdrawal on the horizon, the situation could grow worse. Violence could increase and Iraqis who stayed at home may be forced to flee, increasing the number of refugees in the region. Internally displaced persons may be unable to return to their homes and their ranks may grow. The United States has yet to announce plans for handling the humanitarian challenges that could follow withdrawal. It is our moral responsibility to do so.
Moreover, Iraqi Christians continue to be the targets of systematic violence, especially in Mosul and Nineveh. They and other Iraqi minorities are of special concern. Even now, Christians continue to flee Iraq at levels comparable to the rate near the beginning of the war, a deeply troubling sign. These ancient communities once thrived in Iraq, but now face potential extinction.
What should the United States do to address these issues?
First, we should not assume that an end to military involvement signals the beginning of a withdrawal of humanitarian support. As a moral matter, we should not claim victory in Iraq when millions of people have lost their homes and have little hope of reclaiming them.
More important, the United States, in cooperation with the Iraqi government and the international community, must develop a post-war plan, similar to what we have done after other conflicts, to find durable solutions for Iraqi refugees and displaced people.
Such a plan should include steps to strengthen the rule of law and security within Iraq to enable Iraqis, including Christians, to remain or return. It also should include working with neighboring countries to integrate refugees in a host country or resettle them to third countries, if return is not possible.
After World War II, the Marshall Plan restored Europe, and after the Vietnam War the Orderly Departure Program brought many Vietnamese to the United States and other countries. These are examples of American resourcefulness and willingness to repair, to the extent possible, the ravages of war.
Certainly, a post-withdrawal plan should be tailored to current realities, but it should demonstrate the same commitment as earlier post-war efforts, leaving Iraq and its people as whole as possible.
Leaving a large number of Iraqis displaced within Iraq and unsettled throughout the Middle East could create long-term social and political problems, hurting the ability of the United States to achieve other important policy goals.
In the end, the abandonment of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced cannot be an option. We cannot leave behind a humanitarian crisis in the hope that it will correct itself. Such an outcome would create more tension in the region and put at risk the next generation of Iraqis, whose leadership will be needed to build a truly stable and peaceful Iraq.
The writer is archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C., and consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop's Committee on Migration and Catholic Relief Services.