Iraq Refugee Crisis

The ongoing violence in Iraq has created a devastating humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, leaving millions of Iraqis displaced in and outside of their country.  The current Iraqi refugee emergency constitutes the largest displacement of people in the Middle East since 1948 .  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that at least 4.2 million Iraqis have now been forced to flee their homes, with 2.2 million displaced internally and over 2 million seeking asylum in neighboring countries such as Syria and Jordan .  Immediate action must be taken to protect this vulnerable population, and the US has a special responsibility to do so.

At the same time that the crisis is growing, the options available to displaced Iraqis are shrinking.  The governorates in Iraq (similar to states in the US) have begun restricting movement within the country. Meanwhile, Syria and Jordan, who collectively host the majority of Iraqi refugees, have begun taking measures to limit the number of refugees entering the country.  While Syria recently introduced significant visa restrictions (November 2007) and Jordan closed its border in 2005, Saudi Arabia began building a fence along its border to limit the refugee flow.

Considering the role of the US in the Iraq conflict, it is both a moral responsibility and a pragmatic foreign policy consideration for the US to protect displaced Iraqis through robust refugee resettlement and overseas assistance.  As indicated by the chart below , we, as a nation, have not come close to meeting our official resettlement goals for Iraqis in recent years.  This abysmal record undermines our international image as a protector of the vulnerable, and means that we are not offering basic help to those who’ve fought, and died, alongside our troops.

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However, advocacy undertaken by USCCB and other refugee service and advocacy organizations has helped bring the US closer to fulfilling our humanitarian obligation to Iraqis.  NGO and faith-based organization advocacy was key to the recent creation, passage, and implementation of the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act (a Kennedy-Smith-Brownback-Lieberman-Levin amendment to the FY2008 Department of Defense Authorization bill) and the Cardin Amendment (to the FY2008 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Educations Appropriations Bill). The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act allows certain Iraqis to apply directly to the US for resettlement from Iraq instead of going through the UNHCR from a country of first asylum.  Iraqis eligible for this program include those who’ve worked for the US Government or for a media or nongovernmental organization headquartered in the US, along with religious or minority community members who have close family members living in the US. This Act also authorized a grant of 5,000 special immigrant visas (SIVs) for Iraqis who have worked for the US government, plus their immediate family members, over the course of the next five years. The Cardin Amendment allocated 500 SIVs for similar categories of displaced Iraqis and Afghanis.

While these are important victories, and they represent steps in the right direction on the part of the US congress and administration, there remains much work to be done.  While the number of Iraqi refugees admitted to the US is beginning to climb slightly, the numbers are still far below the stated goal of 12,000 in FY2008.  At the same time, US funding to the developing countries bearing the lion’s share of the Iraqi refugee burden has remained relatively low compared to the intensity of the need and the unique responsibility the US bears.

Catholic Social Teaching
The Judeo-Christian tradition is steeped in images of migration.  Papal teaching has reflected biblical images of migration including the plight of those fleeing danger and persecution.  Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum included the right to migrate to sustain one’s family.  Exsul Familia, Pius XII’s response to the unprecedented populations of refugees and displaced persons following World War II, called the Holy Family the “archetype of every refugee family.”  And Pope John Paul II, speaking in Centesimus Annus about the condition of refugees and immigrants, said that “no one can say that he is not responsible for the well-being of his brother or sister.”

What the Catholic Community is Doing to Help
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, along with other Catholic partners like Catholic Relief Services, and the International Catholic Migration Commission, has recently founded the Catholic Coalition for the Protection of Displaced Iraqis (CCPDI).  The goal of this coalition is to integrate the efforts of Catholic entities and individuals to serve and protect the displaced inside Iraq, in countries of first asylum, and in the third countries to which some refugees are resettled.  Currently, Catholic organizations, diocesan clergy and staff, along with lay Catholics are doing much to help this population at a local, state, national, and international level.  These efforts and the coordination of them will continue to increase as the US steps up its response to this displacement crisis.

The Commission of Bishops’ Conference of the EU (COMECE) recently made a public appeal on behalf of Iraqi refugees. Bishop Van Luyn, President of COMECE, drew attention to the large number of displaced Iraqis and requested that the issue be put on the next agenda of the Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting for the European Union. They requested political support and material assistance for countries surrounding Iraq who are dealing with a large influx of refugees.

Policy Recommendations

  • First and foremost, the US must begin by acknowledging the severity of the Iraqi refugee crisis and the fact that violence inside Iraq has made civilian life unsafe and unbearable.

  • Considering its central role in Iraq, the US should lead an international initiative to support those countries in the region which are currently hosting millions of Iraqis.  This initiative should be a central feature of larger diplomatic efforts in the region.

  • The US should increase bilateral and multilateral assistance to countries in the region that are hosting refugees, and for those who are displaced within Iraq.  The countries hosting the most Iraqi refugees include Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon. 

  • The US must work with the Iraqi Government (GOI) so it is better able to respond to the needs of its people.  This includes monitoring of the GOI’s use of international donor funds.

  • The US must agree to resettle a number of Iraqi refugees that reflects the magnitude of the crisis and begins to address the urgent needs of the most at-risk subpopulations, including vulnerable minors and religious minorities.  We recommend a US commitment to resettle at least 60,000 Iraqi refugees per year until the urgent protection needs of this population have been met.  Specifically, the US should:

    • Ensure that Iraqis in imminent danger but unable to escape the country can apply to be brought to the US through its refugee admissions program.

    • Bring to safety in the United States the families of American citizens, Iraqi refugees & asylees and other Iraqis who reside in the United States.

    • Amend the overly broad "material support" clause of the Patriot and Real ID acts so that Iraqi refugees who have been forced to pay ransom to violent groups are not prevented from entering the US.

    • Ensure that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have adequate staff and funding to interview and process a much higher number of Iraqi refugees. This should include posting members of the DHS Refugee Corps to the region as needed.

    • Allocate the personnel and resources necessary to ensure the thorough, effective and timely conduct of all security screening procedures.

What You Can Do

  • Write, call or visit your Congressional representatives to express your support for robust bilateral and multilateral overseas assistance for Iraqi refugees.  Also, urge your representative to push for admitting at least the targeted number of Iraqi refugees to the United States this year and for greatly increasing the numbers targeted and admitted in future fiscal years, thus upholding the responsibility the US has to Iraq and its people.

  • For more information, or to be added to the USCCB/MRS policy and advocacy list, contact Sara Feldman at the Office of Migration and Refugee Policy, Migration and Refugee Services, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: (202) 541-3448


  ***There is currently some dispute as to UNHCR’s official numbers of displaced Iraqis.  RCUSA does not yet have a formal position on exactly how many Iraqis are displaced in and outside of Iraq.
3 Data in chart from: Human Rights First. (2008). Iraqi refugee admissions by month: FY 2005- FY 2008. Retrieved February 25, 2008, from