Migrant Flight, Washington's Role and America's Failure
September 5, 2015
Amanda Taub / Vox World
The human tragedies of this summer’s refugee crisis are beginning to feel unbearable. Yesterday, photos of a drowned Syrian toddler whose body washed up on a Turkish beach shocked the world. Aylan Kurdi was 3 years old, and his 5-year-old brother and mother also died at sea. Days earlier, Austrian officials discovered the body of another refugee toddler, a tiny girl no more than 2 years old. She and 70 others, including three more children, suffocated in the back of a smuggler's truck.
Migrant Flight, Washington's Role and America's Failure
When you see that drowned Syrian boy,
you should see the United States’ shameful failure
Amanda Taub / Vox World
(September 3, 2015) -- The human tragedies of this summer’s refugee crisis are beginning to feel unbearable. Yesterday, photographs of a drowned Syrian toddler whose body washed up on a Turkish beach shocked the world. His name was Aylan Kurdi. He was 3 years old, and his 5-year-old brother is also believed to have died at sea.
And just days earlier, Austrian officials discovered the body of another refugee toddler, a tiny girl no more than 2 years old. She and 70 other people, including three more young children, suffocated in the back of a smuggler's truck, which was then left abandoned by the side of an Austrian highway. They, too, like so many others, were refugees who had hoped to find safety in Europe. Their journey, too, ended in tragedy.
The death of any child is devastating. But these children’s stories are particularly painful to read about, because they carry a reproach for readers like us: We let this happen. We left those innocent children to this fate. We knew refugee children were in danger, and did nothing, and this is the result.
And make no mistake: We did know. As the refugee boats have crossed the Mediterranean, photograph after photograph has showed rescue workers cradling tiny babies and toddlers rescued from the water.
We knew desperate families were bringing children on these journeys. We knew they would keep coming, because what could drive a parent to bring a child on such a dangerous crossing except fear that staying behind would be worse? And we knew that if we didn’t do more to help them, many of those children would die -- and so would their families.
But apparently those children weren’t dead enough to hold our attention. An infant saved from a boat wasn’t good enough for us: We needed to see one dead on a beach, lying alone, face down, in the surf.
And so the world has treated the refugee crisis as a sort of bureaucratic inconvenience, a problem that someone else really ought to be handling. But the truth is that those are just excuses we tell ourselves to feel better about the fact that we’re not doing the right thing. Because make no mistake: This is a situation where there is a right thing to do. And we are not doing it.
Germany is now beginning to show moral leadership on the refugee crisis, and to call on other countries to come forward and do their part before more children and their families die. But the United States, like much of Europe, has not followed suit. Our silence and inaction are shameful.
How America Has Failed Syria's Refugees
To grasp the magnitude of the United States’ failure, you first need to grasp the magnitude of the crisis the world is facing. Approximately 4 million Syrian refugees have fled that country’s years-long civil war, which means that Syrians make up nearly 25 percent of the world’s total refugee population. The vast majority of them are in the Middle East and Turkey, with Turkey alone hosting 1.6 million people.
These camps are the first line of global, Western, and American failure. This summer, the European Union, United States, and Kuwait respectively pledged $1.2 billion, $507 million, and $500 million for aid to refugees.
That's good, but it's still far short of the $5.5 billion in aid that the UN says is needed for these refugees, as well as another $2.9 billion for displaced Syrians within Syria. As a result, the camps are often crowded and undersupplied, which leaves the people who live in them cold, hungry, and subject to the ravages of disease.
Make no mistake: This is a situation where there is a right thing to do. And we are not doing it.
This summer, hundreds of thousands of refugees have made their way to Europe, with most crossing the Mediterranean in rickety boats and rubber dinghies. Those boats are barely seaworthy, so tragedies are frequent: UNHCR estimates that 2,500 people have died just this summer while attempting to make the crossing. This is the second line of failure, as European policies designed to discourage migration not only fail to help refugees, but make their journey more dangerous.
But many people do successfully cross, contributing to what has become the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. This is the third line of failure, and it is where America's failure in particular is perhaps starkest.
The German government expects 800,000 people to seek asylum there this year, and hundreds of thousands more are expected to seek asylum in other European countries. The United States, by contrast, has resettled 1,434 Syrian refugees over the four years since the conflict began.
Take a moment to consider just how small a number that is: 1,434 people! Nineteen times that many people attended Taylor Swift’s latest concert in Omaha. Ten times that many people ride the city bus line I use for my commute every day.
Those 1,434 people wouldn’t even fill three 747 jets. And 1,434 people is just over half the number of refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean this summer during their desperate flight to safety.
Nor do we intend to do much better in the future. The US has pledged to take between 5,000 and 8,000 people by the end of 2016. But that number is still pathetically tiny. Twelve thousand refugees arrived on the shores of the Greek island of Lesvos last Monday alone. The United States taking a fraction of that many over the next 15 months isn't meaningful help -- it's just adding insult to injury.
We Know What Doing the Right Thing Looks Like;
We're Just Not Doing It
Contrast the United States' shameful inaction with Germany's moral leadership in the past few weeks. Germany is receiving such large numbers of refugees so quickly that its government is transforming abandoned big-box stores across the country into emergency refugee shelters that can hold large numbers of people.
The influx has provoked xenophobic violence as well as a political backlash against the government for not doing more to keep refugees out, which German leaders have resisted.
The rest of the EU has largely failed to act on the crisis, leaving Germany, along with border countries like Greece and Italy, to handle the problem on its own.
And yet German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to her great credit, has resisted political pressure to abandon the refugees, and instead insisted publicly that these people are worthy of protection and entitled to help.
To be sure, Germany had to be pushed into that leadership role. Thousands of refugees have already arrived within its borders. It is not resettling them from elsewhere, as the United States has pledged to do. But Merkel's government is not merely doing the minimum it can get away with: Last week it voluntarily suspended an EU regulation that would have allowed Germany to deport Syrian refugees to EU border countries, and will let them stay in Germany instead.
Apparently, saving children from drowning at sea violates Obama's "don't do stupid shit" foreign policy doctrine
Nor is such generosity limited to Germany. Earlier this week, Iceland made headlines when more than 10,000 people asked their government to take more Syrian refugees than it had pledged to, and offered to open their homes to host them if necessary. Iceland's total population is only about 320,000 people, which means that an astonishing one in 32 citizens personally offered to help.
The United States, by contrast, has about 1,000 times the population of Iceland. This means that, if the US took in Syrian refugees at half the rate that Icelanders have pledged, then it would be able to absorb 5 million refugees, more than the entire population currently in need of assistance.
That is not to argue that the US necessarily should do this -- it's difficult to imagine even the logistics of such a thing -- but rather to point out how desperately wide the gap is between the responses of countries that are taking moral leadership on the refugee crisis and what America is doing.
America Isn't Just Failing to Do the Right Thing –
It's Actively Embracing that Failure
Here in the United States, our politicians have been all too happy to ignore the problem, and the American public has been all too happy to let them.
The fact is that taking in more Syrian refugees is the right thing to do. It would save the lives of desperate people, and ease the burden on our allies, who are struggling to cope with the sudden arrival of thousands of people.
It would not be excessively difficult: This country already has a large, expertly staffed refugee resettlement program that could handle the logistics of resettling Syrians, and a host of private charities that are experienced in helping refugees settle and integrate into communities across the country that could assist them when they arrive.
We are the richest country on Earth, and opening our borders to more immigration would help this country to grow even richer. There is no serious argument against taking in more people.
And yet not only are we failing to live up to that moral obligation, we are embracing our failure. Donald Trump has ridden an ugly wave of xenophobia to the top of the polls in the GOP primary, proving that not only do many Americans hold anti-immigrant beliefs but they are proud of them, and thrilled to have them validated by a national political figure.
And the Obama administration has failed to show the kind of leadership on this issue that Merkel's government has, instead remaining content to accept a tiny trickle of people and ignore the rest. Apparently, saving children from drowning at sea violates Obama's "don't do stupid shit" foreign policy doctrine.
And so children will continue to drown in the Mediterranean and suffocate in the backs of trucks. And their families will die alongside them. And we will pretend it has nothing to do with us.
But it does. There is a right thing to do here. We're just not doing it.
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