Originally, the term "diaspora" was used to refer to Jewish communities who were forced to leave Israel and go into exile in the 6th century BC. Since then, it has evolved into a more general term to describe any group of people usually defined by an ethnic or religious sect who have been scattered among countries outside of their original homelands. Ironically, people now refer to the "Palestinian" diaspora to identify the estimated 4.5 million Palestinians who now live outside of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, mostly in neighboring Arab countries like Jordan and Lebanon.
George Bush has been fond of calling the war on terror the first war of the twenty-first century. It's unlikely, however, that we will ever hear him claim that the Iraqi diaspora is the first diaspora of the twenty-first century. But that is exactly what is happening.
The war in Iraq has displaced four million people from their homes. Two million of those have become refugees with the vast majority heading to Syria and Jordan. The UN estimates that 50,000 Iraqis flee the country every month.
Syria, often vilified by the Bush administration for it's alleged interference in Iraq, has been the most generous in accommodating displaced Iraqis, accepting about 1.2 million so far. Jordan has taken in 750,000, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have taken 200,000, while Iran has taken 54,000 and Lebanon has accepted 40,000.
Disgracefully, the US has not been accommodating at all in taking in Iraqi refugees. Over the past four years, the US has resettled just 466 Iraqi refugees. This is ironic given our significant level of responsibility in creating the Iraqi diaspora in the first place. But recently, George Bush has decided to become much more generous on this point:
Bending under significant pressure from the international community, the Bush administration has agreed to admit as many as 20,000 Iraqi refugees to the US this year.
20,000 is, of course, a tiny fraction (half of one percent to be exact) of the 4 million Iraqis who have been displaced from their homes as a direct result of our invasion and mishandled occupation of Iraq. Surely, Mr. President, we can be more generous than that?
Iraq's neighbors are shouldering a huge share of the burden, some of them with little or no assistance from the US. Iraqi refugees have swelled Jordan's population by an astonishing 10%. On a per capita basis, a similar influx into the US would be on the order of some 30 million people! Imagine the uproar and instability that this would create if it had happened here.
Kenneth Pollack and Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution present the potentially dire consequences of the Iraqi diaspora:
Most Iraqi refugees are not in camps, but dispersed among local populations. But refugees, whether in camps or not, can also corrode state power from the inside, fomenting the radicalization of domestic populations and encouraging rebellion against host governments. The burden of caring for hundreds of thousands of refugees is heavy, straining government administrative capacity and possibly eroding public support for regimes shown to be weak, unresponsive, or callous. And the sudden presence of armed fighters with revolutionary aspirations can lead disaffected local clans or co- religionists to ally with the refugees against their own government, especially when an influx of one ethnic or religious group upsets a delicate demographic balance, as would likely be the case in some of Iraq's neighbors.
We are still just on the cusp of what could become a much larger problem if Iraq devolves into a full-scale civil war. Iraqi Sunni refugees could tip the balance of power in Syria against Bashar Assad's Shiite-dominated regime. Shiites are just 12% of the population in that country with the majority of the rest Sunni. Radical Sunni extremists would be the most likely group to take power in Syria in the event of the fall of the Assad regime. Jordan's pro-Western regime could be toppled by local extremist elements aided by Iraqi Sunni refugees. Kuwait's pro-Western regime could be threatened as Shiite refugees from Iraq increase the Shiite population of that country which is currently about one-third.
Given all this, wouldn't you think we could accept a few more Iraqi refugees than a scant 20,000?
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