Rafael Foley served as a Refugee Coordinator in Baghdad, Iraq from August of 2006 to August of 2007.Video -- Policy Podcast: Iraqi Refugee Update
I was the Refugee Coordinator in Baghdad from August of 2006 to August of 2007. It was the hardest job I have ever had. It was also a humbling job, and rewarding in the subtle way that a humbling experience can be. I was coming from the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) in Washington and was familiar with refugee issues. Soon, however, the challenges of operating in Baghdad came to the fore, demanding immediate responses to situations unlike those in any other post in the world. I always felt that PRM in Washington and the political section at post -- of which I was a part -- supported me, which was reassuring and for which I was grateful. But I still had big responsibilities over my shoulders. The Embassy relied on my expertise on refugee issues, Washington on my field assessment of the situation. A good policy and humanitarian response to the problems of refugees in Iraq required a combination of both, and neither was easy.
Iraqi refugees (non-Iraqis inside Iraq) where trapped in the country, physical and legally unable to leave Iraq. Iraqis facing persecution because of their association with the US government sought reassurances about their future that I could not entirely provide, and often lacked the means to leave Iraq and wait four to six months (or more) in a neighboring country in order to be processed for admissions into the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Expertise on refugee issues was not enough to overcome these challenges, at least not with the urgency that the situation demanded.
Assessing the conditions of the refugees was equally difficult, not only because of the risks of travel outside the International Zone, but also because contact between heavily protected American diplomats and groups of refugees raised the profile of the refugees, potentially exposing them to retaliatory attacks by militias or insurgents.
I recall one night in which I got word of an attack on a Palestinian refugee neighborhood in Baghdad. The refugees did not trust the Iraqi police, and would not call on them for assistance. They only trusted MNF-I forces, but did not want to appear to be close to them because that would put them in greater danger. For these reasons members of this community would call my Iraqi assistant, whom they knew and trusted, to request that I send troops to protect and rescue them. I did not have the power to mobilize troops, but made use of the available mechanisms to alert MNF-I and ask them to respond, which they did within the limits of their own missions. Similar calls in the middle of the night were frequent during my first few months in Iraq.
I also recall the start of the Embassy program to assist Iraqis persecuted because of their association with the US government. PRM encouraged me to set up an Embassy Committee to review and refer these cases to the US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Different sections of the Embassy, particularly management, RSO and consular, helped in the review of the cases. The referred cases would still need to leave Iraq for processing, but they would have a good opportunity, based on the merits of their cases, to eventually reach the US and start a new life. As the system started to refer cases and after the first Iraqis reached the US, many locally-employed staff pursuit my advice and a referral. Their future and that of their families depended on their decision to pursuit a referral, for which they relied heavily on me.
When I left Iraq last August I had the opportunity to join A/S Sauerbrey and some of my PRM colleagues for a meeting in Jordan with some LES referred to the USRAP. I knew them and their cases. I was familiar with their stories, the threats against their lives, their lost relatives to the violence in Iraq. Last time I had seen them there was fear in their eyes and anxiety in their voices. Now, as they prepared to depart for the US, there was hope in their faces. I wondered then and wonder now how we could do better, for them and for those like them still needing our assistance.