Europe is not enough: Coping with the Syrian refugee crisis globally

German Chancellor Angela Merkel made the bold decision this week to allow mostly Syrian refugees stuck in Hungary to proceed to Germany and seek asylum there. Germany is expected to receive around 800,000 asylum applications this year—mostly from the Western Balkans, but also elsewhere, including Syria. This is a stark increase from last year’s 200,000 applications.

In a remarkable manifestation of intra-EU solidarity, other EU member governments have come forward with their own expanded quotas to take asylum-seekers. Sweden has admitted over 30,000 Syrian refugees, sharing the moral high ground with Germany. France has agreed to admit 24,000 refugees. Britain, which has hitherto accepted fewer than 300 Syrian refugees, is now offering places for 20,000 to be admitted in the next five years. 

Taking international obligations seriously

However, with the exception of Britain’s offer—which specifies that these places would be available only to refugees currently in camps in countries that neighbor Syria—the other offers really just seek to share the burden within the EU. This, of course begs the question: what about the 4.2 million registered refugees who live primarily in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey? Europe should put into place a resettlement program that expresses solidarity with these countries, not just one within the EU. There are three reasons for this.

First, the international refugee system was set up on the shared understanding that refugees are an international responsibility, not just the responsibility of the country where they happen to arrive. Resettlement of refugees to third countries is one widely recognized manifestation of burden-sharing. In spite of numerous appeals by Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the EU and the United States to make resettlement available, there were only about 100,000 spots available as of August 2015—that’s less than three percent of the overall number of Syrian refugees. The EU and the United States have resettled fewer than 9,000 Syrians since 2011, a truly miniscule number compared to that admitted by Syria’s neighbors. 

Second, local and national government officials—together with NGO representatives in Turkey—have been trying, to the best of their abilities, to dissuade refugees from making contact with human smugglers and risk their lives. Clearly, their calls have fallen on deaf ears. Unless a credible resettlement program is put into place, it is going difficult to hold back refugees who see others making the trip successfully (in spite of the risks). There must be a bitter sense of betrayal among some of the refugees who heeded the warnings. The New York Times, for example, is already reporting that there is an increased activity among existing displaced persons in Iraq to try to make it into the EU before it is too late. 

Third, at a time when the international community has so miserably failed in assisting refugees, let alone bring the conflict in Syria to a negotiated end, putting into place a credible resettlement program could inspire some hope for the future of international governance. Such an expression of solidarity would make it easier for the governments and civil societies of countries hosting the bulk of the refugees to continue to do so. As the conflict in Syria persists and the prospects of return become even dimmer, the continuation of the crisis could lead to a second European refugee crisis. That one could be even more treacherous and costly, as smugglers are likely to become more unscrupulous to circumvent the inevitable effort to reinforce Fortress Europe with more walls and razor wire fences. 

The rub: domestic politics

However, will the EU—and, for that matter, the United States—be able to come up with such a resettlement program? The odds are not particularly promising. As the United States enters an election year, anti-immigration feelings appear to dominate the discussion. In such a climate, a major resettlement program would likely meet stiff resistance. 

During a discussion at Brookings this week, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that the upcoming United Nations General Assembly meeting could be an ideal forum for creating a more unified international effort—including resettlement plans and financial assistance—to help Syria’s neighbors cope with the refugee crisis. Actually, Turkey—as the country with the largest number of refugees—would be ideally positioned to take this idea up and propose it to the world.

The EU has long been struggling with xenophobia and anti-immigrant politics. It is no wonder that there are already loud criticisms of Angela Merkel’s boldness, dubbed as “too much generosity.” Some ranks of the Catholic Church, meanwhile, have rejected the Pope’s call for Catholics to open their homes to refugees. Clearly, the international community is not yet out of the woods: international solidarity may once more fall victim to domestic politics, while refugees wait for the next occasion to take matters into their own hands and test intra-EU solidarity.