The surge of Syrian refugees into Europe is a crisis with many fracture lines. I’ve been asked to comment on it multiple times given my role in working on immigration issues as the editor of PEREGRINE, even though our focus at Hoover is on immigration to the United States.
The civil war in Syria is to blame, not Europe or the “West” as some have claimed. Syria had a population of 22 million people, and best estimates are that 4 million have fled the country and nearly 8 million are internally displaced. Although the focus of media coverage has been on refugees flooding into the European Union, keep these numbers in perspective. Turkey has taken in 1.8 million, and the tiny country of Lebanon has taken in 1.2 million. And Europe? Germany says it anticipates taking in 800,000 refugees and asylees this year which is 4x normal (asylum is a refugee status for someone already in-country). The Economist has a useful graphic contrasting different European refugee acceptance numbers and per capita rates. Some countries such as Poland are willing to accept only Christian refugees (roughly 1/10 of the Syrian population). In contrast, some states in the Gulf region are taking in zero refugees.
Images of dead refugees carry great moral impact, but I am not so quick to judge. I may believe it is right for America to be more open to immigrants than any other nation, even proud of our historic openness, but I respect the sovereignty of other countries to be closed. Japan and Australia, as two examples, are ethically and culturally distinct in their regions. A nation has no moral obligation to welcome foreigners as fellow citizens. But does it have an obligation to protect refugees during a war?
The challenge for Europe is this: will welcoming refugees now lead to an acceleration of even more refugees in 2016. It is naive to think there is no feedback loop. Almost every one of the 18 million people that remain in Syria would be better off anywhere else. And what of the people of Africa’s civil wars?
Let’s not pretend there are easy answers.
As for the U.S., the President establishes an annual cap on the number of refugees admitted. Currently that cap is 70,000 people per year (see this fact sheet from immigrationpolicy.org). I would like to see that set higher. However, I think our focus should be on refugees for nations nearer to home, notably in Central America. The U.S. has already contributed $4 billion to aid international and NGO efforts to help the refugees.
The other policy dimension to this, in my eyes, is the wages of pacifism. By allowing Syria to fester, by not engaging early on and ousting the Assad regime in 2011, by precipitously withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, the White House pursued a pacifist fantasy that was a central causal factor in today’s crisis.
There are sins of omission in foreign affairs.