Refugees? What Refugees?
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 Baghdads Shiite militia, says with a gloomy matter-of-factness worthy of
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
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, Swedens
intake of Iraqis is the equivalent of the U.S. taking in about 500,000
Of all the Iraq war scandals, Americas 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 Bushs fear-infused nation.
I know, the U.S. is showering aid (more than $122 million in 2007) on Iraqs
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
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 cant 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. Thats 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 wifes.
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
wed like to see more burden-sharing, he says.
Burden sharing! How about guts? Swedes are polite to a fault.