16 Million Refugees Are Not Some Other Country's Problem

Alessandro Di Meo/ANSA via AP Photo

Migrants crowd and inflatable dinghy as rescue vassel "Denaro" of the Italian Coast Guard approaches them, off the Libyan coast, in the Mediterranean Sea, Wednesday, April 22, 2015.

The world today is facing a crisis of people fleeing their home countries in the greatest numbers seen since World War II. How is it responding?


Item: Two Eritrean refugees who reached Israel by crossing the Sinai desert went to court Thursday, asking for an injunction preventing the government from deporting them to Rwanda. The policy of forced deportation is new, but a recent report by Israeli refugee-rights organizations shows that in case after case, Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers who supposedly left voluntarily in 2013-2014 did so under pressure, including threats of indefinite detention. Those sent to Rwanda were in turn expelled by authorities there almost immediately. Others were sent back to Sudan, where some were imprisoned and tortured for the crime of visiting an enemy state—Israel. Dozens of refugees who "voluntarily" left Israel for Africa are now trying to reach Europe: by land to Libya, then across the Mediterranean on smugglers' boats.

Item: An Australian lawyer has filed suit against that country's government to keep it from returning the family of a five-year-old Iranian refugee girl from a detention center in Darwin, on Australia's northern coast, to the island country of Nauru—a speck of land halfway to Hawaii. Australia pays Nauru to take boat people caught at sea while trying to reach Australia. The girl's family was brought to Darwin because her father needed medical treatment there.  She is suffering post-traumatic stress from the time she has already spent in a detention camp on the island.

Item: When a smuggler's boat crashed against rocks on the shoreline of the Greek island of Rhodes last week, a Greek soldier who happened to be nearby plunged into the water and singlehandedly saved 20 people from the sea. The boat was carrying 93 people, including refugees from Eritrea and Syria. Most made it there safely, but at least three drowned—a small addition to the toll of 1,750 or more boat people who have died trying to reach Europe this year. The worst single disaster took place two weeks ago, when a ship sailing from Libya sank, taking an estimated 800 or more people to their deaths. At an emergency E.U. summit meeting last week, leaders decided to triple funding for the European coastal patrol and make plans for fighting smuggling rings. In short, they aimed at keeping migrants, including asylum-seekers, from European shores.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said several Royal Navy vessels would join the naval operation—while stressing that migrants saved from the sea would likely be taken to the nearest country rather than getting a chance at asylum in Britain. No surprise: Both Cameron and his challenger in the upcoming British election, Labor Party leader Ed Miliband, have promised to reduce immigration. Miliband himself is a symbol of the contribution that refugees of other times have made to Britain: His father and grandfather, as Jews fleeing Belgium, were given asylum in 1940.

Item: The United States accepts about 70,000 refugees a year for permanent resettlement, selected from applicants around the world. Last year, says Alexander Betts, head of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, the United States decided to give 7,000 spots to Syrian refugees. To put that in perspective: 10 million Syrians have fled their homes during the civil war, and about 3 million of those have reached other countries, thereby falling under the usual formal definition of refugees. (The rest are "internally displaced.") One quarter of the population of Lebanon today is Syrian refugees, Betts says—as is over half the number of school-age children.

I began this list with Israel because that's where I live, and I'm used to looking at the refugee issue as a local one, in terms of the callousness of my own government. That's a reasonable place for the citizen of any country to begin. I ended the list with the United States because its resettlement program is the largest of any country in the world, according to Betts. And that only shows how inadequate the developed world's response is to a crisis that is not at all local, except in the sense that the citizens of many countries should be pressing their own governments to take an entirely different approach to it.

The new approach would begin with getting real. "We have more people displaced than at any time since World War II," Betts told me this week. There are 16 million refugees worldwide. That doesn't include those who have fled their homes but are still inside their own countries.

More than half the world's refugees have been in that situation for more than five years. Syrians—now the world's largest group of refugees—aren't part of this category because the civil war began four years ago. But even if Bashar al-Assad's regime fell tomorrow, rebel groups and militias would continue fighting. No outside power is volunteering to send its military to build a functioning state—in part because of the disastrous failure of the United States in Iraq, in part because Syria and Iraq are both creations drawn on the map by European empires and have no glue to hold them together. There's very little basis to think that Syrian refugees are going home.

Likewise, none of the 300,000 refugees from the prison state of Eritrea will return voluntarily to face a regime that conscripts men and women for indefinite military service that resembles slavery, that prohibits dissent, and jails people without discernable reason in underground cells.

Another reality check: Most refugees are in countries that are themselves poor, unstable or both, usually bordering their own. Jordan and Lebanon have closed their borders to Syrian refugees—or are trying to—because they are already overwhelmed. The potential outcome of refugees living as eternally temporary, unwelcome visitors is the collapse of more regimes and the radicalization of young people.

The next part of the new approach is facing responsibility. The international convention on refugees—ratified by most countries in the world and by virtually every developed country—entails two obligations. The first is that asylum must be given to people deserving refugee status by the countries to which they flee. The second is that other countries party to the convention must share the burden.

Right now, the convention is a yardstick for the measurement of failure. The developed countries that refugees first reach by sea or land look for ways to prevent them from arriving, and for ways to "encourage" them to leave. Countries further away from the zones of despair and from smugglers' destinations have a much easier time evading the vague obligation to help out. Britain would prefer boat people to be in Italy. America is ready to take all of 7,000 Syrians.

Taking a new approach to the refugee crisis also means looking beyond the immediate moment. The announced rationale for Australia sending asylum-seekers to Nauru, or for Europe's stepped-up patrols is that the message will spread among refugees, they'll stop trying to come, and the people-smugglers will lose their clientele for dangerous voyages. Besides being a façade for fear of people with a different language, religion, or skin color, this is amazingly short-sighted. People will keep risking their lives to reach safer ground, because that's the only hope they have. If one route is closed, they'll look for another.

So here are some ideas for just and viable action. First, immediately, wealthy countries far from the refugee routes must agree to take a much larger portion of the people seeking asylum by any means possible. Second, representatives of the developed world must meet and agree to dramatic expansion of programs to resettle refugees who apply from overseas. Let's stop pretending they have a home behind them and put a home in front of them. The best way to keep people from boarding unseaworthy boats is to give them visas and plane tickets.

Third, a far larger investment is needed in the economies of the countries where most refugees are now. In the long term, this is a kind of frugality. Spending on a Marshall Plan scale now is cheaper than building military coalitions to deal with the consequences of states collapsing in the future.

Yes, I know: In a time of obsessive austerity and fear of immigrants of any kind, these proposals sound unrealistic. Never mind the moral and practical costs of ignoring the problem. Never mind the contribution that people incredibly eager to build their futures can make if given the chance. It's so much easier to treat a world crisis as someone else’s local problem. But it's not. And sometimes, consistent and morally responsible political pressure makes previously impossible things happen.


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