The US role in forced migration from the Middle East

By Azadeh Shahshahani

Human rights advocates and organizers working on immigrants’ rights in the U.S. must take a broader approach in our advocacy, rather than solely focusing on the rights of people once they get here. As Donald Trump rolls back immigrants’ rights, and debates on the refugee crisis intensify, there is no doubt as to the immense scale of the problem.


Nearly 24 people are displaced per minute. About 66 million people around the world have been forced from their homes. The Middle East and North Africa region accounts for more displacement than any otherSix million Syrians have been internally displaced, and over 4.8 million are refugees outside of Syria—around half of Syria’s pre-war population. The Iraq conflict displaced 4.4 million people internally and created more than a quarter of a million refugees. Yemen’s civil war displaced 2.5 million people. In Libya, almost half a million people were forced to flee their homes.

To address the root causes of this massive forced migration from the Middle East, advocates need to understand the various facets of this issue, including the role of U.S. foreign policy that creates conditions that impel people to flee their countries. But this aspect of the issue is often left out of mainstream media coverage and political rhetoric.

As of August 2016, the US had appropriated, spent, or taken on obligations to spend more than $3.6 trillion on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria and on Homeland Security (2001 through fiscal year 2016). Add to this an estimated $65 billion in dedicated war spending that the Department of Defense and State Department requested for 2017, along with nearly $32 billion requested for the Department of Homeland Security in 2017, and estimated spending on veterans in future years. Total U.S. spending on the wars will easily reach $4.8 trillion.

These wars often have a pretense of humanitarianism: when George W. Bush announced strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, he also spoke condescendingly to the Afghan people: “The oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and our allies. As we strike military targets, we will also drop food, medicine and supplies to the starving and suffering men and women and children of Afghanistan.”

However, the military engagement that began as Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan is now the longest war in America’s history, producing a death toll of 111,000 people, plus 1.4 million refugees internally and 2.5 million externally. Rather than freeing people from the Taliban, the invasion of Iraq and the weakening of the state in both Afghanistan and Iraq exacerbated the mobilization of extremist groups, facilitating the growth of ISIS and other offshoots, whose violence has produced refugees in large numbers. Other Western actors, specifically the UK, also had a role to play by taking part in and actively supporting the US mission.

In Iraq in 2003, the U.S. intervened with the purported goal of finding weapons of mass destruction. Yet, the U.S. invasion of Iraq catapulted the country into a civil war, leading to widespread internal displacement, as noted earlier, in addition to at least 178,317  deaths of Iraqi civilians (estimates reach as high as 199,694).

In Libya, on March 28, 2011, Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would pursue the formation of an international coalition to protect civilians from the security forces of Muammar al Qaddafi.  After Qaddafi was overthrown, the country disintegrated as tribal and rival militias feuded over power, leading in turn to mass displacement of the same civilians that the US was purporting to protect. The entirety of U.S. military operations in Libya cost the U.S. $1.1 billion.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the U.S. dropped 26,172 bombs on Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan in 2016—an average of 72 per day. CFR also notes that these estimates are “undoubtedly low,” considering the lack of reliable data and the fact that a single “strike” can include multiple bombs. These numbers also do not include bombs dropped by other actors who were either aligned with the U.S. or against it.

What the Future Holds

Trump campaigned on keeping immigrants out while increasing defense spending, and quickly added $30 billion in military spending to the FY 2017 budget. His FY 2018 budget will add another $96.5 billion to the military budget.

Then, in April 2017, Trump announced airstrikes against Syria without Congressional authorization, sending 59 cruise missiles into Syria in response to Assad’s latest chemical weapons usage against his own citizens. Yet, earlier this year, in apparent contradiction to this claim of defending Syrian citizens, Trump has attempted to ban Syrian refugees from the U.S.

Trump’s pre-inaugural pronouncements regarding the Middle East also sounded a colonialist note, with one study noting his repeated insistence “that the U.S. should ‘keep the oil’ in Iraq and Libya after intervening there.” This rhetoric, along with ramping up of defense spending, means that we should expect more of the same, if not worse, in U.S. policy towards the Middle East.

The Role of Human Rights Advocates

Our most important obligation is to create public awareness about the roots of forced migration as steeped in U.S. foreign policy. We cannot and should not divorce this issue from broader discussions around immigrants’ rights. Rights activists and organizations should hold educational forums specifically on the roots of forced migration and invite directly affected migrants and refugees to speak. Stakeholders should continue to discuss this issue in depth in any forums about immigrants’ rights, as well as in Congressional and state legislative advocacy.

We should also do our utmost hold the U.S. government accountable for its foreign policy decisions that have led to disastrous consequences for millions around the world—and try to prevent additional wars. This is not a theoretical proposition, as the U.S. government is once again sounding out a belligerent tone, this time towards Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. We must hold our Congressional representatives accountable and demand that they stop funding the wars. Looking to our history, it was only through massive and sustained mobilization of the American public against the war in Vietnam that the U.S. government was finally forced to end its disastrous military intervention there.

Citizens of other countries can also hold their governments accountable by demanding that they not participate in any form or lend tacit support to U.S. wars. As just one example, other countries can refuse the U.S. military the use of their land or air space.

As we have begun to do in Georgia in our fight to shut down immigration detention centers through documenting and exposing the abuses, we must work closely with organizations such as School of the Americas Watch in tying immigrants’ rights with U.S. foreign policy and addressing both issues in a more holistic manner. It is only through making these linkages and collectively fighting against an unjust U.S. foreign policy and repressive immigration policy that we can have any hope of finally addressing the roots of forced migration.

 This article originally appeared in OpenGlobalRights.

 Azadeh Shahshahani is the Legal & Advocacy Project Director at Project South and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild.


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