First Big Wave Of Iraqi Refugees Heads For The US
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In February, the US agreed to accept 7,000 Iraqi refugees this year, a large jump over the fewer than 700 Iraqis accepted by the US in the first three years of the war but a drop in the ocean when measured against the estimated 2 million Iraqis who have fled the country since the war began. About 2,000 of those Iraqis coming this year, say refugee officials, will start their lives anew in Michigan.
While 7,000 remains tiny when measured against the US population and human need, the history of war-driven immigration to the US is that it is generally backloaded: The US accepted only about 600 refugees from Vietnam between 1954 and 1974. The floodgates opened after the fall of Saigon, with the first wave composed largely of Vietnamese who had worked with Americans in that country.
By the 1980 census there were 245,000 Vietnamese living in America, and that number had grown to 614,000 by 1990. The second wave was fed by the exodus of boat people fleeing communist rule and reeducation camps.
Though there are 3.5 million Arab-Americans now, according to an estimate by the Arab American Institute, the 2000 census counted 1.3 million and of those only 38,000 identified themselves as “Iraqi.” What’s more, 63 percent of Arab-Americans are Christians, reflecting decades of migration from Levantine countries such as Lebanon.
Though it’s still easier for Iraqi Christians to get into the US because of family ties, and the estimated 1 million Iraqi Christians are disproportionately represented among refugees, they still make up, at most, 5 percent of Iraq’s population. So if the United States does decide to take in a large number of Iraqis, the traditional Christian tilt of Arab Americans will be substantially shifted.
So far, the Iraqis have had few options. One of the major recipients of refugees since the war began has been Sweden, which accepted 9,000 Iraqis last year. This year, Sweden’s migration minister estimates 20,000 will be accepted. But people working on refugee issues in the region say there’s a dawning awareness that what was at first thought to be a temporary problem now needs durable solutions. “At the start of the war, there was still this notion that most of those who’d left Iraq would eventually be returning home,” says Rana Sweis, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Amman. “But it’s become clear that we need to face reality.”A member of another group who works with Iraqi refugees, who asked not be named said: “It’s never as fast as you’d like, and the US is so far doing very little to open its doors. But is it getting faster? Yes.”
Accepting refugees isn’t as simple as giving them a visa. Families coming to the US receive free plane tickets and a living stipend while they get on their feet, but they’re expected to start paying this money back once they get a job. In all, the US spends about $800 million a year on refugees, though much of this is to improve living conditions in refugee camps overseas. The US will accept 70,000 refugees in total this year.
(Posted on June 27, 2007)