Those of us outside Europe are watching the unbelievable images of the Keleti train station in Budapest, the corpse of a toddler washed up on a Turkish beach, the desperate Syrian families chancing their lives on the night trip to the Greek islands — and we keep being told this is a European problem.
The Syrian civil war has created more than four million refugees. The United States has taken in about 1,500 of them. The United States and its allies are at war with the Islamic State in Syria — fine, everyone agrees they are a threat — but don’t we have some responsibility toward the refugees fleeing the combat? If we’ve been arming Syrian rebels, shouldn’t we also be helping the people trying to get out of their way? If we’ve failed to broker peace in Syria, can’t we help the people who can’t wait for peace any longer?
It’s not just the United States that keeps pretending the refugee catastrophe is a European problem. Look at countries that pride themselves on being havens for the homeless. Canada, where I come from? As few as 1,074 Syrians, as of August. Australia? No more than 2,200. Brazil? Fewer than 2,000, as of May.
The worst are the petro states. As of last count by Amnesty International, how many Syrian refugees have the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia taken in? Zero. Many of them have been funneling arms into Syria for years, and what have they done to give new homes to the four million people trying to flee? Nothing.
The brunt of the crisis has fallen on the Turks, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Iraqis and the Lebanese. Funding appeals by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have failed to meet their targets. The squalor in the refugee camps has become unendurable. Now the refugees have decided, en masse, that if the international community won’t help them, if neither Russia nor the United States is going to force the war to an end, they won’t wait any longer. They are coming our way. And we are surprised?
Blaming the Europeans is an alibi and the rest of our excuses — like the refugees don’t have the right papers — are sickening.
Political leadership from outside Europe could reverse the paralysis and mutual recrimination inside Europe. The United Nations system to register refugees is overwhelmed. Countries like Hungary say they can’t resettle them all on their own. The obvious solution is for Canada, Australia, the United States, Brazil and other countries to announce that they are willing to send processing teams to Budapest, Athens and the other major entry points to register refugees and process them for admission.
Countries will set their own targets, but for the United States and Canada, for example, a minimum of 25,000 Syrian refugees is a good place to start. (The United States’ recent promise to take in 5,000 to 8,000 Syrian refugees next year is still far too small.) Churches, mosques, community groups and families could agree to sponsor and resettle refugees. Most of the burdened countries — Hungary, Greece, Turkey, Italy — would accept help in a heartbeat. Once these states take a lead, other countries — including those wretched autocrats in the Gulf States — could be shamed into doing their part.
So why are our leaders — President Obama, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and President Dilma Rousseff — doing so little? Resettling refugees, they fear, will trigger an even greater exodus, and they don’t know how their teams could handle the chaos that would result. Tough, resourceful management — clear quotas for Syrian refugees (especially those with young families), simplified procedures and a commitment to airlift people out quickly — could solve these problems.
Most of all, however, leaders aren’t acting because no one back home is putting any pressure on them. Now, thanks to heart-sickening photographs, let’s hope the pressure grows.
This is a truly biblical movement of refugees and it demands a global response. If governments won’t help refugees escape Syria, smugglers and human traffickers will, and the deadly toll will rise.
Once the Europeans know that their democratic friends are ready to take in their fair share, it will become easier for them to take theirs, and the momentum might emerge to reform the 1951 Refugee Convention, so that all those fleeing civil war, state collapse and murderous militias will get the same protection as those fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution.
Let’s remember that we used to be able to rise to the occasion. My country, Canada, sent a government minister to Vienna in late 1956 to support a processing center that took in hundreds of Hungarians and airlifted them to Canada after the Soviets crushed the Hungarian uprising. The Hungarians themselves seem to forget that they, too, were once refugees. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States received hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boat people. There were voices, on both occasions, that warned, this will trigger a flood. It did — and what excellent citizens these Vietnamese and Hungarians have been.
The Vietnamese and Hungarians were fleeing Communism. What’s holding back sympathy for the Syrians? They’ve been barrel-bombed in Aleppo by their own regime, they’ve been tortured, kidnapped and massacred by miscellaneous jihadis and opposition militias. They’ve been in refugee camps for years, waiting for that cruelly deceiving fiction “the international community” to come to their aid. Now, when they take to the roads, to the boats and to the trains, all our political leaders can think of is fences, barbed wire and more police.
What must Syrians, camped on the street outside the Budapest railway station, be thinking of all that fine rhetoric of ours about human rights and refugee protection? If we fail, once again, to show that we mean what we say, we will be creating a generation with abiding hatred in its heart.
So if compassion won’t do it, maybe prudence and fear might. God help us if these Syrians do not forgive us our indifference.
Michael Ignatieff is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School.