In the old Peter Sellers movie The Mouse That Roared, an impoverished European country declares war on the U.S. to get the Marshall Plan-type benefits that Americans notoriously shower on their defeated enemies.
Nowadays, those benefits include importing a lot of those (hopefully) former enemies as "refugees." Thus Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran were among the top ten countries in terms of the numbers of refugees approved for entry to the U.S. in 2002. (Table 1.)
How many Iraqi refugees can we expect in the wake of the U.S. occupation? To help answer the question we've looked into the historical record of major refugee migrations in the post-WWII era. (Table 2.)
In absolute terms, the largest migration of refugees to these shores occurred during the Cold War. Millions of displaced persons fled Eastern Europe after the Soviet takeover. To embarrass the Soviet Union, the U.S. passed the Displaced Person Act of 1948, enabling DPs to enter the U.S. as refugees. From 1945 to 1960 668,000 European refugees came here.
After declining in the 1960s and 1970s, the European influx resumed after 1980, spurred by the Soviet Union's collapse and war in the Balkans.
A total of 1.5 million European refugees became permanent U.S. residents between 1945 and 2002. This represented 0.3 percent of the 1950 population of Europe. (Table 3.)
But other regional conflicts have triggered much larger refugee movements relative to population. Here, for example, is the cumulative refugee total received by the U.S, as of 2002, expressed as a percent of the home country's population at the (approximate) year of the conflict:
By applying these percentages to Iraq's current 25 million population, we can generate a plausible range for the number and timing of Iraqi refugees settling in the U.S. (Table 3.)
Baghdad is not 90 miles off the coast of Florida, so the Cuban experience may not be determinative. (Whew!) But don't relax. Throughout our history, refugee policy has been linked far more closely to domestic politics and foreign policy than geographic proximity. What else explains the fact that Vietnam is still among the top ten sources of "refugees"—nearly thirty years after the war's end?
So what exactly is U.S. refugee policy toward Iraq? In a statement released last year the INS declared the suspension of Iraqi "refugee" approvals imposed when the war broke out was "temporary." There will be no ban on the processing or admission of Iraqi refugees, the INS said.
Applauding the INS decision was the U.S. Committee for Refugees—a pillar of the refugee industry, needless to say.
Director Lavinia Limon said: "It is imperative that we keep our door open to victims of Saddam Hussein's brutality."
Iraq is starting to look like Vietnam. In more ways than one.
[Number fans click here for tables.]
Edwin S. Rubenstein (email him) is President of ESR Research Economic Consultants in Indianapolis.