Wednesday, September 26, 2007

ROGER COHEN: Refugees? What Refugees?


MALMO, Sweden

A 16-day overland odyssey has brought Mokaled Gamil, a former Iraqi Army officer, to this southern Swedish town, and what he fears now more than anything is resettlement north of the Arctic Circle in some snow-bound place that will ice over his Mesopotamian blood.

“Please, not far north,” he says in passable English, addressing Oskar Ekblad, an official from the Swedish Migration Board. “Too cold.”

Even by the fantastic standards of the Iraq war, the scene is bizarre: Gamil, a 45-year-old ex-colonel from an ex-army, stands outside a hostel full of stained mattresses and stunned Iraqis begging a decent Swede not to be dispatched to some remote reindeer-rich refuge.

“Iraqis are destined to begin their lives again at 45,” Gamil, a Sunni who has fled Baghdad’s Shiite militia, says with a gloomy matter-of-factness worthy of Strindberg.

Many are restarting in Sweden. Between January and August this year, Sweden took in 12,259 Iraqis fleeing their decomposing country. It expects 20,000 for all of 2007. By contrast, in the same January-August period, the United States admitted 685 refugees, according to State Department figures.

The numbers bear closer scrutiny. In January, Sweden admitted 1,500 Iraqis, compared to 15 that entered the United States. In April, the respective numbers were 1,421 and 1; in May, 1,367 and 1; and in August 1,469 and 529.

True, the Iraqis in Sweden are asylum-seekers, whereas those reaching these shores have refugee status conferred by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. But the numbers — representing the bulk of the Iraqis getting into a country of nine million and another of 300 million — are no less of an indictment for that.

When Tobias Billstrom, the migration minister, says, “Yes, of course the United States should do more,” you can feel his indignation about to erupt like milk boiling over. He notes that given the huge population difference, Sweden’s intake of Iraqis “is the equivalent of the U.S. taking in about 500,000 refugees.”

Of all the Iraq war scandals, America’s failure to do more for refugees, including thousands who put their lives at risk for the U.S., stands out for its moral bankruptcy. Last time I checked, Sweden did not invade Iraq. Its generosity shames President Bush’s fear-infused nation.

I know, the U.S. is showering aid (more than $122 million in 2007) on Iraq’s neighbors to help more than two million fleeing Iraqis. It set up a refugee task force in February and, when that faltered, appointed two refugee czars this month.

“We want people engaged in this 24/7, breaking down barriers and expeditiously helping the refugees,” Paula Dobriansky, the under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs, told me. “We have a moral obligation, and especially to those who have worked at our embassy.”

A commitment has been made to process 7,000 refugees in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. Visas for 500 Iraqis a year who worked for the U.S. have been promised. But these are velleities. Concern has been unmatched by results. Bush has never addressed the issue, an example of his Green Zone politics: shut out ugly reality and with luck it will vanish.

An aggressive American intake of refugees would suggest that their quick return to Iraq is improbable: that smacks too much of failure for Bush. Moreover, you have to scrutinize refugees from countries “infiltrated by large numbers of terrorists,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff opined recently.

The result has been “major bottlenecks,” in the words of a leaked cable from the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker. Instead of the 7,000 Iraqi refugees supposed to get here this fiscal year, perhaps 1,600 will.

“The numbers are totally embarrassing,” says Kirk Johnson, who worked for the United States Agency for International Development in Iraq. “We can’t recognize a moral imperative any more.”

Imperative is right. People who risked their lives for America are dying or being terrorized because of craven U.S. lethargy. Others are in limbo. Bush now says “Saddam Hussein killed all the Mandelas.” That’s too glib; one may be waiting to be saved.

The I-told-you-so phase of the Iraq invasion is thankfully ending. What is needed now is consensus on American responsibility. That starts with a more open door to Iraqis in flight. Mr. President, say something.

Gamil lost his job when the army was disbanded. He worked sporadically as a translator. But when threats came — as a Sunni ex-officer he was an obvious target to Shiite militias — “I had to save my life and my wife’s.”

Sweden will give him a lawyer to argue his asylum case. Ekblad says the “overwhelming majority” are approved. Refugees then get a permanent resident permit leading to possible citizenship in five years. “Our costs are huge, and we’d like to see more burden-sharing,” he says.

Burden sharing! How about guts? Swedes are polite to a fault.

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