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Iraqi refugees in crisis, panel told

WASHINGTON (BP)–Millions of Iraqis have fled their homes in order to seek asylum in neighboring countries, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom was told at a Sept. 19 hearing. Religious minorities, specifically the Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, Sabean Mandaeans and Yazidis, have almost completely evacuated the country, witnesses said.

The testimonies of key leaders working for resolution of the refugee crisis were heard in the second of two hearings held by the commission about religious freedom in Iraq. The focus of this hearing was the large numbers of refugees who have flooded surrounding countries during the war in Iraq and how the U.S. should assist these people groups.

Two million Iraqis have been displaced within the borders, while 2.2 million have left the country, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“They simply don’t see a way to ever go home,” Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, told the commission in describing the mindset of religious minorities who have sought refugee status. Intolerance and violent attacks toward these minorities have forced them to evacuate.

“The [Iraqi] government is dysfunctional and almost irrelevant,” said Judith Yaphe, Middle East specialist at the National Defense University. With the instability of the central government and lack of power and resources, Iraqis have abandoned communal tolerance and diversity for homogenous communities in an attempt to gain stability. Multiple civil wars between the Sunni and Shi’a Islamic sects have created a complex and extremely volatile situation, Yaphe explained.

The majority of the refugees are not religious minorities but are members of these Muslim sects who have been pushed out by sectarian violence and military offensives, Sauerbrey said.

Witnesses also described refugee living conditions in temporary, rented housing. Food, shelter and other basic necessities are difficult to get, mainly because Iraqis are unable to work without the proper visas. “Prostitution has increased. Trauma and anxiety is widespread. Diminished assets make survival difficult,” said Judy Cheng-Hopkins, UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for operations.

Efforts to aid refugees have gotten off to a slow start, admitted Sauerbrey, but she is hopeful about the next several months. “We are now moving along pretty rapidly,” she said. The admission of refugees into the U.S. is set to increase dramatically in October.

The State Department also has worked to improve health and education conditions among the refugees in Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Funds were given to long-established, religiously based NGOs that are familiar with the area, as well as the governments of neighboring states to help with educational concerns.

“The involvement of churches is so important [to the transition of the refugees],” said Sauerbrey. Sixty-two percent of the refugees who have already made their way to America are Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, she testified. The establishment of the refugees within U.S. borders is handled by six faith-based groups located throughout the country, Sauerbrey said.

“The condition of these minorities is of special interest to me,” said Sen. Gordon Smith, R.-Ore., who attended the hearing. Smith believes helping these refugees is “America’s moral duty” but said the country has not done enough. He has proposed legislation that will increase the number of visas given to Iraqis seeking asylum in the U.S.

Dana Graber Ladek of the International Organization for Migration agrees that a great deal more could be accomplished. “Increased funding is the best approach the U.S. can take,” Ladek told the commission. The U.S. government provided $6 million to IOM, only a fraction of the $86 million needed to provide food and shelter for the millions of Iraqi refugees, she said.
Erica Simons, a senior at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Fla., is attending the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities’ Washington Journalism Center this semester and serving as an intern with Baptist Press.

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