Europe’s migrant crisis: How friends and foes could help

Europe is struggling with a migration crisis. That the crisis affects Europe more than other regions is an accident of geography, not a moral imperative. By rights, the entire world should help bear the burden. Obviously, countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria have been dealing for a number of years with far greater numbers of refugees than Europe. No one should expect them to bear yet greater burdens. But beyond these immediate neighbors, Europeans should be asking both friends and foes for some additional support. Here are some ideas on who could help and how.

America’s historic responsibility

With a presidential election scheduled in just over one year, we can expect little action from Washington. Still, as a land of immigrants and as a declining yet still indispensable power, America has a historic responsibility to play a key role in this crisis. After having tried in vain for a number of months, the State Department has now managed to gain some political traction: It recently got the go-ahead to raise to 100,000 the yearly number of refugees that the United States will accept from 2017 onward. 

[A]s a land of immigrants and as a declining yet still indispensable power, America has a historic responsibility to play a key role in this crisis.

This is far too little. And given that no more than 10,000 of these refugees will be Syrians, that funding has not yet been earmarked and that screening for potential terrorist links might take up to two years, even this number is little more than speculation. Unfortunately, this is probably as much as we can expect from America until the beginning of 2017 at the very earliest. In the meantime, more cash for U.N. agencies would help. Indeed, Washington might soon find that the dollar is the only viable tool it has to positively affect the situation. 

China’s multilateral way in

China has massive stakes in the Middle East. It needs access to its oil reserves, and it is developing an increasingly comprehensive trade relationship with countries in the region. 

Unlike in other regions of the world, however, China has relatively limited leverage in the Middle East. The establishment of the Sino-Arab Forum in 2004 highlights both China’s interest in the region and its so far relatively limited engagement with it. China can hope for a “gentle entry” in the Middle East only through a multilateral approach. 

China has massive stakes in the Middle East.

China has so far been relatively shy in terms of refugee policy, granting refugee status almost exclusively to Vietnamese and North Koreans. Answering promptly to calls from the Office of  the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and World Food Program (WFP) for ad hoc funding for the region could be an easier option for China than offering to take in asylum seekers. Together with its recent pledge to provide 8,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops and $100 million in financial assistance for the African Union, such an effort would be consistent with Beijing’s broader strategic approach.

Black gold generosity?

One should also look to the Middle East itself. While Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq are already dealing with exceptional challenges, fellow wealthy Muslim countries should do more for their brothers in the region. 

With contributions to global humanitarian assistance in the range of $755 million, $375 million and $342 million respectively, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait are now firmly established as key donors on the global humanitarian landscape. All three have also been involved to various degrees in hosting migrants and refugees through semi-informal arrangements. While it is often claimed that the three countries have done too little when it comes to hosting refugees, the situation is in fact rather more complex and the countries in the region have repeatedly refuted these claims. On the one hand, Gulf states are not signatories to the United Nations 1951 Convention on Refugees and, therefore, do not engage with the issue according to agreed international standards. On the other hand, there are hundreds of thousands of Syrians currently living in these countries under a plethora of arrangements. The challenge here is to “institutionalize” the response or, at the very least, to find a comprehensive operational framework. 

The traditional do-gooders

Finally, we can expect more from the traditional do-gooders of the North, even though they have already done much. While small in absolute terms, Norway’s contribution to hosting refugees is truly exceptional in relative terms. Continuing on this path, Oslo is now working closer than ever with its Nordic partners as a global advocate of refugee rights. It helps that Sweden has long been active in that role and that the Nordic countries support Denmark’s bid to have its former prime minister lead UNHCR. From a similar perspective, Switzerland should be brought into the fold

After a slow response, Canada has lately been upping its game by pledging more financial support for the WFP and UNHCR in and around Syria, as well as planning for a greater intake of refugees. The new government of Justin Trudeau should not renege on Stephen Harper’s commitments. Even better, it could accumulate political capital with its European allies by going further. 

In the end, Europeans should take responsibility for the migrant crisis and think strategically about how to develop a comprehensive response. But they still should expect the international community to play a greater role in sharing the burden. Most countries in the region cannot be expected to do more than what they are already doing. For their own strategic reasons, however, both Europe’s allies and foes might wish to step forward and contribute to ease the pressure on Europe’s borders. It would certainly be good for Europe. It would probably be in everybody’s interest. And it might even help the refugees.