By Andrew Cohen
While most Berkeley Law students spent winter break resting their brains at home after final exams, 2Ls Anna Sanders and Sarah Rich flew 12,000 miles to confront a confounding issue—the resettlement of Iraqi refugees.
Co-chairs of the Boalt Hall Committee for Human Rights, Sanders and Rich launched its new Iraq Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) by spending a week in Jordan. There, in the capital city of Amman, they joined a group from Yale Law School and a law student from NYU for extensive meetings with stakeholders from all sides of the ongoing crisis.
Sanders and Rich had been searching for an international project that offered students a human rights-oriented clinical experience. After learning of Yale’s fledgling IRAP chapter, Sanders met with a student coordinator who came home to Oakland over Thanksgiving weekend.
“I heard all about this big trip to Jordan to meet the major players,” Sanders says. “They were excited about possibly coordinating with another student group, so we raced to make a proposal for a couple of us to go from Berkeley Law. A week later we got funding, and a couple weeks after that we were flying to Amman.”
Once there, they met with Iraqi refugees, international human rights organizations, local NGOs, senior government officials, Jordanian law students and professors, and even a U.S. State Department representative.
“Instead of just throwing resources at something from thousands of miles away, we wanted to learn the most effective way for us to participate,” says Rich. “Many students want to devote a lot of hours to this, and it was important to see what populations aren’t being served and where the bottlenecks are.”
An uphill battle
With Iraq in disarray following the United States’ 2003 military invasion and subsequent occupation, millions of Iraqis have fled their country. The ensuing refugee crisis is marked by rampant uncertainty—from how many refugees live in various countries to how to resettle them.
The United States will allow 17,000 Iraqi refugees this year, an increase over 13,000 last year. Sanders and Rich saw first-hand that in Jordan, most Iraqi refugees face a bleak existence.
“Iraqis aren’t legally allowed to work there because they’re not officially considered refugees,” Sanders says. “They use up their savings, live off remittances from family members back in Iraq, and hawk their possessions. Many have to work illegally, and they constantly face prejudice, fighting, threats, teasing, and other forms of abuse.”
The estimated number of Iraqi refugees living in Jordan varies wildly—from 150,000 to 750,000. Rich says only 56,000 are registered with the United High Commissioner for Refugees, which administers the resettlement process. The agency refers 20 percent of those for resettlement, which means only 1.5 to 7.3 percent of all Iraqi refugees living in Jordan are able to leave.
Sanders and Rich met with 15 teenagers, only two of whom were in school because Jordan refused to educate Iraqi refugee children until two years ago. They also spoke to refugees who badly misunderstood the resettlement application process, Jordanians who mistakenly believed Iraqi refugees are all wealthy and require no assistance, and aid organizations resistant to offers of help.
In ramping up its own IRAP chapter, the Boalt Hall Committee for Human Rights will work with counterparts at other U.S. law schools and the University of Jordan Law School. As a result, Berkeley Law students will be able to develop relationships with refugees and help speed their resettlement.
“This is a way for students to get involved and handle specific, manageable tasks like writing a cover letter for a refugee’s resettlement application,” says Rich. “There’s a strong appeal in having a client, where you really can make a concrete difference in that person’s life.”
Initially conceived as a purely legal assistance project, the project’s scope grew after Sanders spoke with International Human Rights Law Clinic director Laurel Fletcher.
“She made the point that if we’re helping Iraqi refugees come to the U.S., it’s somewhat irresponsible to leave it at that,” Sanders says. “The refugee process certainly doesn’t end when you get the visa in your hand. It really just begins. If they come to the U.S., we can continue to advocate for them.”
While the United States is the leading resettlement nation along with Australia, individual state laws make for tricky legal maneuvering. Wyoming, for example, does not accept refugees.
Adding to the situation’s complexity are misgivings many have about the broader impact of resettlement. Minorities and professional classes are viewed widely as integral parts of Iraqi culture, and their exodus frays its societal fabric. “We’re sensitive to the big picture,” Rich says, “but we can’t ignore individual stories of hardship and need.”
Sanders plans to work in international human rights after graduating while Rich, who will attend Harvard’s public policy school next fall and earn a joint degree, explores labor migration policy.
“Iraqi refugees are particularly compelling because as Americans we have some responsibility for their situation,” says Sanders. “Our country’s actions led to this refugee crisis, and this is a chance for American law students to step in and help.”