The U.S. Should Do More to Help the Yazidis | Commentary

Posted September 30, 2015 at 11:52am

Dozens of articles and reports have been published detailing the unimaginable abuse of Yazidi women and girls by the Islamic State terror group, also known as ISIS. Summarizing these atrocities with the attention they deserve — explaining the depths of the barbarity and brutality these people have faced — would require pages upon pages.

ISIS has created a structured system of organized kidnapping, rape, forced marriage and sexual slavery. It is targeted primarily at Yazidi girls, though ISIS ideologues have also authorized fighters to have sexual contact with captive Jews and Christians. It’s not hidden: They sell the captive girls in the open, like cattle at market, where militants come and go as they please to select slaves as young as nine years old. The cost of a girl can be as little as a carton of cigarettes.

This disregard for human life is sanctioned under the twisted interpretation of Islam followed by ISIS. Because Yazidis follow a historically oral tradition, they are viewed as heretics and devil worshipers. ISIS fighters believe they are entitled, if not obligated, to enslave, rape and forcibly convert these girls. The group even published a pamphlet in December 2014 on how to treat female slaves.

According to the Kurdistan Regional Government, nearly 1,000 Yazidis had escaped ISIS as of March 15. Their testimony is as sickening as it is heartbreaking.

Nobody knows how many Yazidis have been killed by ISIS. Almost all Yazidi men are immediately executed after being captured.

Nobody knows how many Yazidi women and girls have been captured and enslaved, but estimates put the number at between 3,000 and 5,000.

The U.S. government is already involved in a number of humanitarian projects to protect vulnerable populations in the region. This work has undoubtedly had significant impacts, but there is more that we can do to help the Yazidis.

Yazidi refugees, and those who are lucky enough to escape from ISIS, are in need of food, tents and blankets. Nongovernmental organizations and humanitarian groups are working hard to provide these material goods, but significant shortfalls remain. The United States is in a position to help by increasing targeted humanitarian aid in support of these and other critical services, including medical and psychosocial treatment for Yazidi women who have been rescued. This would ensure that NGOs on the ground have the supplies and resources they need.

Human Rights Watch recently documented the severity of the need for trained trauma specialists, explaining that “doctors need to be better trained in examining women who have been victims of sexual assault … otherwise, the exams could be harmful and humiliating for women and girls, and make them feel like they have no control over their bodies — which is what they felt when they were abducted by ISIS.” By helping to provide access to counseling, the United States can play a significant role in rehabilitating these traumatized and often suicidal survivors of ISIS.

Additionally, nearly every Yazidi who has applied for asylum in the United States has had that request rejected. According to recent reports, only 10 Yazidi families have been granted asylum. All of them have been former translators for U.S. forces in Iraq, and none of them were granted visas based on religious persecution. However, it is undeniable that these individuals are being persecuted in the cruelest of ways by ISIS. Given the existence of small Yazidi communities already in the United States, and the recent announcement by the president administration that it will increase the number of refugees admitted into the United States every year, there is no reason that we cannot take in more Yazidis.

Earlier this year, I hosted a briefing on the Islamic State’s involvement in sex trafficking and its barbaric treatment of the women and girls that they take as captives. At the time, scant media attention was devoted to this systematic abuse and degradation. While the geo-political complexities that exist in the region are unquestionably daunting, one thing is clear: thousands of women currently experiencing this horrific treatment, and the few who have been lucky enough to escape, need the support of the international community.

Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla., is a senior member of the House Rules Committee, ranking member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and co-chairman of the Florida delegation.