The refugee crisis isn't a European problem

An exhausted Syrian boy crying after he arrived with his family on a train from Budapest's Keleti station at the railway station of the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, early yesterday. The refugee crisis is a responsibility for the rest of the world,
An exhausted Syrian boy crying after he arrived with his family on a train from Budapest's Keleti station at the railway station of the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, early yesterday. The refugee crisis is a responsibility for the rest of the world, especially the countries that have been arming Syrian rebels and those that pride themselves on being havens for the homeless.PHOTO: REUTERS

Those of us outside Europe are watching the unbelievable images of the Keleti train station in Budapest, the body 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 US and its allies are at war with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - fine, everyone agrees they are a threat - but don't the rest of the world have some responsibility towards the refugees fleeing the combat? If some countries have been arming Syrian rebels, shouldn't they 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 US that keeps pretending the refugee chaos 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(up to August). Australia? No more than 2,200. Brazil? Fewer than 2,000 (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 funnelling 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.

Blaming the Europeans is an alibi, and the rest of our excuses - like the refugees don't have the right papers - are sickening.

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 US 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 UN system to register refugees is overwhelmed. Countries such as Hungary say they can't resettle them all on their own. The obvious solution is for Canada, Australia, the US, 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 US and Canada, for example, a minimum of 25,000 Syrian refugees is a good place to start (America's 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 nations take a lead, other countries - including those wretched autocrats in the Gulf states - could be shamed into doing their part.

So why are the leaders - President Barack 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 centre 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 US 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 Islamists 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 that 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.

THE NEW YORK TIMES

• The writer is a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2015, with the headline 'The refugee crisis isn't a European problem'. Print Edition | Subscribe