America has a duty to help Middle Eastern refugees. Withdrawing from Afghanistan didn’t change that.
As we enter 2022, hundreds of innocent men, women and children seeking refuge from several Middle Eastern countries—including Iraq and Syria—are still stuck in the middle of regional political power struggles over which they have no control. This was evident when Belarus reportedly relaxed its visa rules, allowing refugees to enter the country before pushing them toward the borders of European Union member countries beginning last summer. Most media coverage and public discussion about the situation has centered on Belarus’s actions and its antagonistic relationship with the European Union. However, this latest regional tension was only a symptom of the root causes that are driving refugees from the Middle East to seek safety: ongoing conflicts, religious persecution and worsening economic conditions in their countries of origin.
The causes of displacement are a direct result of international activity and conflicts involving the United States and Europe.
The Middle East has endured war, political strife and societal upheaval for decades. One result has been the forced displacement of millions of people, most of whom are still living in the region under increasingly difficult conditions. Many others have attempted to leave the region: The thousands of people at the Belarus-Poland border include Kurds fleeing from persecution and instability in Northern Iraq; Yazidis, a displaced minority religious group that survived genocide and religious persecution by ISIS; and Syrians, many of whom remain displaced after 10 years of war.
The causes of displacement are, in turn, a direct result of international activity and conflicts involving the United States and Europe. Especially since the end of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, much of the world has turned its attention away from geopolitical conflicts in the region, among them the decade-long crisis in Syria and ISIS activities there and in Iraq. But these issues have not disappeared, and people continue to suffer. Additionally, the Covid-19 crisis has added a new layer to these complicated economic and social situations.
The United States and the international community have a legal and moral duty to help those displaced as a result of their activities. This duty includes ensuring that those on the Belarus-Poland border can access their right to claim asylum in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. All measures aimed at preventing people from accessing European Union territory and from lodging an application for asylum must cease. Moreover, the international community must facilitate humanitarian aid to displaced people in the Middle East and continue to invest in durable solutions that allow Syrians, Kurds, Yazidis and others to live in dignity and safety.
U.S. humanitarian assistance, channeled through nongovernment organizations on the ground, supports lifesaving programs and helps meet the basic needs of displaced persons, including access to food, water, shelter, health care and education. Groups like Jesuit Refugee Service in the Middle East serve displaced people in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria—accompanying them through some of the most challenging times of their lives. The foundation of this humanitarian aid work is building inclusive communities by providing access to education and psychosocial support to those who have experienced the trauma of displacement. Critical interventions are both long-term and immediate. These interventions include investing in livelihood training and providing opportunities to rebuild careers while also meeting basic health, nutrition and housing needs.
All measures aimed at preventing people from accessing European Union territory and from lodging an application for asylum must cease.
Recently, Congress passed a continuing resolution that will keep the U.S. government funded at current levels through February 18. While this avoids fiscal disruptions to humanitarian programs in the short-term, it delays critical conversations that need to take place about the need for increased humanitarian assistance in places like the Middle East. As Congress continues its deliberations and President Biden prepares his fiscal year 2023 budget proposal, programs that help meet the needs of displaced persons in places like the Middle East must be prioritized.
Another important step is for the United States to do its part by continuing to rebuild and expand the U.S. refugee admissions program. Resettlement in the United States and other countries provides a much-needed long-term solution for the most vulnerable of refugees. In addition, the expansion of alternative legal pathways, including scholarship programs and access to work permits, can offer refugees opportunities to leave the region while also achieving an education and earning a livelihood.
The dire living conditions in the countries that these individuals are coming from has already taken an unacceptable toll on human life and propelled them to embark on dangerous journeys in search of safety and a new life. More people will die this winter, as temperatures drop and living conditions continue to deteriorate. But until the United States directs resources to address the multiple factors that force people to flee their homes, refugees will continue to risk the hazardous journeys as they seek safety in the United States and Europe.
The international community must step up and take responsibility for supporting lasting solutions that help people to live in security and dignity.