Iraqi refugees

IRAQI REFUGEES…. According to a dejecting piece in today’s New York Times, the Bush administration had planned to resettle just 500 Iraqi refugees this year, while reality shows tens of thousands of Iraqis who are now believed to be fleeing their country each month. “Until recently,” the Times reported, “the administration did not appear to understand the gravity of the problem.”

If only I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen that sentence.

“We’re not even meeting our basic obligation to the Iraqis who’ve been imperiled because they worked for the U.S. government,” said Kirk Johnson, who worked for the United States Agency for International Development in Falluja in 2005. “We could not have functioned without their hard work, and it’s shameful that we’ve nothing to offer them in their bleakest hour.”

Alas, there’s a political implication. To acknowledge a refugee crisis would be to acknowledge yet another degree of failure. As Lavinia Limon, president of the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nongovernmental refugee resettlement agency, put it, “I don’t know of anyone inside the administration who sees this as a priority area. If you think you’re winning, you think they’re going to go back soon.”

As it happens, the crisis is for the desk of Ellen Sauerbrey, the Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration. Sauerbrey, of course, was given the job despite literally no background in responding to refugee crises, setting up camps, delivering emergency supplies, and/or mobilizing international responses to humanitarian crises. Her only “qualification” for the job seemed to be that she was a Republican activist looking for a job in the administration. (Sauerbrey is a former member of the Republican National Committee and was Bush’s Maryland state campaign chairwoman in 2000.)

Indeed, the moment Bush nominated Sauerbrey for the post, advocates for refugees balked. Tapping Sauerbrey to lead an agency with a $700-million annual budget, responsible for coordinating the nation’s response to refugee crises during natural disasters and wars, despite no relevant job experience, seemed like a spectacularly bad idea. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), rather politely at her confirmation hearing, told Sauerbrey, “I think the concern here is just that the issues of refugee relief are a very specific and extraordinarily difficult task, and it doesn’t appear that this is an area where you have specific experience.”

Senate Republicans, true to form, approved her nomination anyway. Now she’s being asked to step up in a big way.

If the refugee crisis worsens, as it’s likely to do, keep an eye on Sauerbrey. We may have another “Brownie”/FEMA story unfolding.