As the Syrian refugee crisis continues to worsen, the United Nations warns of another massive crisis in the Middle East. The battle against ISIS is moving towards the city of Mosul, which is ISIS’s stronghold in Iraq. While retaking the hugely populated city will not be easy, the potential mass exodus of millions of people creates complex problems for Iraq, the U.S., and the region at large.
Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city, with over 1 million people inside and under ISIS control. Nearly 84,000 people have already fled the area as the Iraqi government and militia advance on the city, with much more expected. With the full assault on the city expected in November, the United Nations is warning that caring for those fleeing the city will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. This new flow of refugees comes on top of the millions of refugees that have already displaced. To properly manage the wave of people that could flee Mosul, and to weed out extremists in the mix, it is critical to relocate as many vetted refugees as quickly as possible.
The logical step for processing refugees from Mosul—including processes to determine if any are ISIS terrorists—is to place them in the camps already handling this process. However, refugee camps in the region are already full beyond capacity. While the United Nations is looking to build more camps, getting funding and finding suitable land is proving difficult.
With the battle over Mosul expected to generate up to 1.3 million new refugees, already strained refugee services in the region will also be unable to cope. The inability to find safety and shelter in Iraq may force refugees to flee to other countries. For the surrounding countries who are already managing millions of refugees, this massive new displacement may be difficult to cope with. The numbers alone will make it hard for Middle Eastern countries to provide care for and to vet these refugees in real time. Refugees may then try to flee onwards to Europe.
We can take action before the battle for Mosul begins, however. If refugees can be resettled outside of the camps and strained neighboring countries, there is a higher chance that displacement from Mosul will be manageable.
While the United States cannot take all of the refugees needed to manage this crisis, every little bit helps. The United States has a very strong vetting process, but has struggled to reach its resettlement goals. Part of the problem is public perception, both about the costs of refugee resettlement and the vetting process.
Concerning security, the American refugee vetting process is long, intensive, and involves multiple agencies. Once here, there are policies that would help the United States increase the number of refugees it takes without increasing the burden on the taxpayer. Canada, as well as other Western countries, have had success with privately-funded refugee resettlement. The United States should follow this example.
Certainly, the international community at large must contribute significantly to avert a humanitarian crisis, but the United States can lead the effort by stepping up its individual support. Resettlement numbers in the United States are severely lacking. While Europe has taken in over 1 million refugees since the start of 2015, and the countries around Syria and Iraq—Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt—have taken millions more, the United States has taken a little over 5,000 this fiscal year. Given that the he United States has a good record of assimilating refugees, and unlike Europe and Middle Eastern countries can screen refugees before they arrive, is all the more reason to increase settlement numbers.
The coming humanitarian crisis will be difficult to manage, regardless of how many refugees the United States takes. However, every refugee added to already bursting camps strains those camps’ ability to help them, bends services and infrastructure towards the breaking point, and risks extremists slipping past security. Every refugee resettled elsewhere eases those problems, and gives slightly more hope that Iraq and Syria may eventually recover. We know this crisis is coming. Other countries will need to help as well, but the United States must do its part.
Let’s help the refugees we can today, because there will be more in the not-so-distant future.