Iraqi refugee crisis underscored by Presiding Bishop

Episcopal Migration Ministries director insists resettlement must be a priority
April 3, 2007

One week after the nation recognized the fourth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori issued a letter March 28 in response to a hearing in the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and Asia concerning the Iraqi refugee crisis.


The Presiding Bishop's letter, including a copy of the recently passed Executive Council resolution addressing the severe humanitarian crisis of refugees and others being displaced by the ongoing violence resulting from the war in Iraq (INC-017), was delivered to Representative Gary Ackerman (D-New York), chairman of the subcommittee, to be submitted for the Congressional record.


To date, more than two million refugees are reportedly living in Iraq's neighboring countries of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey. "It is also clear that the humanitarian needs of this constant influx of displaced persons from Iraq far exceeds the ability of host countries to respond," said Jefferts Schori in her letter. "There is on-the-ground evidence that many are now living without access to medical care and that children lack access to schools. This pressure on neighboring countries could deepen the crisis for these displaced persons."


Borders are becoming harder to cross as these countries are unable to handle the needs of the refugees, and repatriation to a war-torn homeland is not a viable option, Richard Parkins, director of Episcopal Migration Ministries, said, insisting that for the most vulnerable of these refugees, including those with an association with the U.S. operations in Iraq, resettlement must be a priority of the U.S. government.


"Such action would be an honorable and compassionate response to the crisis and offer some relief to countries whose hospitality is being strained by this ongoing movement of refugees," he said.


As the Iraqi refugee crisis heightens, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is convening a special meeting of concerned governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Geneva from April 16-19 to discuss strategies to protect the growing number of at-risk persons. As chair of the Refugee Council USA, Parkins will be a member of the U.S. delegation at these meetings. Parkins also testified recently as a witness before the House subcommittee dealing with the Labor/Health and Human Services Appropriation Bill for FY 2008. He noted in his remarks to the committee the need for additional resources to respond to the needs that will confront U.S. communities called upon to receive Iraqi refugees.


It is estimated that 2,000 Iraqi refugees could be received by the U.S. this year with another 5,000 reaching U.S. shores in 2008.


U.S. NGOs are pressing for a more proactive response from the government in resettling refugees with U.S. connections and those -- such as women and children -- whose vulnerability requires immediate rescue.



The full text of the Presiding Bishop's letter follows.


March 28, 2007


The Honorable Gary Ackerman
Chairman
Subcommittee on the Middle East and Asia
170 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515


Dear Mr. Chairman:


On behalf of the Episcopal Church, I am writing to ask that this letter outlining our position on the humanitarian crisis of Iraqi refugees be shared with members of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and Asia. I believe that the views of our Church are especially pertinent to the recent hearing of the subcommittee dealing with the issue of "Iraqi Volunteers, Iraqi Refugees: What is America's Obligation?".


The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that nearly two million persons have fled Iraq in recent months due to ongoing violence; the most vulnerable Iraqis have sought refuge in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Jordan, and the number of new arrivals continues to rise. The UNHCR estimates the number of refugees to be approximately 50,000 in Lebanon, 200,000 in Egypt, 400,000 in Syria and 700,000 in Jordan. It is also clear that the humanitarian needs of this constant influx of displaced persons from Iraq far exceeds the ability of host countries to respond. There is on-the-ground evidence that many are now living without access to medical care and that children lack access to schools. This pressure on neighboring countries could deepen the crisis for these displaced persons.


In addition, refugees with family ties to the United States, many of whom are Christians, those who may have had an association with the Coalition forces, and those in especially vulnerable situations, such as women and children, are all in need of resettlement outside this impacted region. Against this background, a substantial infusion of humanitarian aid is needed to augment UNHCR's meager resources to address the impact of this new flow of desperate refugees and to set up the mechanisms for processing some number for resettlement.


The interim governing body of the Episcopal Church, the Executive Council, therefore has recommended in a recently passed resolution that the US Government take the following actions to address the severe humanitarian crisis of refugees and others being displaced by the ongoing violence resulting from the war in Iraq:


Move urgently to begin discussions with all countries in the region immediately affected by the war in Iraq in order to bring about a cessation of hostilities and remove the circumstances that threaten the stability of the region and produce widespread displacement of persons,


Appropriate sufficient funds to allow host countries in the region to respond to the growing humanitarian crisis caused by the massive migration of persons into Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey in search of protection and safety,


Undertake diplomatic initiatives and assistance programs, including resettlement, so as to encourage host countries in the region to provide access to asylum,

Seek the creation of a process which enables Palestinian and other refugees under severe threat to depart Iraq in safety,


Work with international partners to ensure that refugees in host countries have access to livelihoods, health care, education and other essential services which they cannot now access or do so on a restricted basis,


Grant temporary protected status (TPS) to those Iraqi nationals in the United States lacking permanent status and who may be facing deportation proceedings,


In collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees take immediate steps to facilitate the resettlement of those refugees in the region, particularly those with US family ties or US associations, including especially vulnerable persons such as women and children.


In your present and future deliberations I hope you will remember the views of people of faith on the important issue of Iraqi refugee resettlement.


Sincerely yours,


The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church