September 11, 2015

The Refugee Crisis – “You Haven’t Seen This Play Before” – Or Have We – What Do We Do?

The refugee crisis which we are witnessing and experiencing -- the crowded train stations in Hungary; the young 3-year-old boy lying dead, face down on the beach, having drowned with his brother and mother after their boat capsized; the stories of beheadings of children who refused to recant their faith to ISIS terrorists; all of this and more drives a feeling of horror (how can people do this to each other?) and helplessness.

I am hit with these reflections:

Now, sadly, I better understand how, in reality, people could know about the threatened and then the actual annihilation of the Jews and not done much about it.  It is so very easy, almost natural, to feel genuine compassion but then return to our normal busy and, yes, often challenging, times. 

I am reminded of the ship S.S. St. Louis that came to Cuba and then to the United States in summer 1939 carrying 937 Jewish refugees seeking asylum from Nazi persecution and they were denied entry, first to Cuba and then to the United States, and had to return to Europe.  Perhaps as many as half those passengers were sent to death camps.  I am reminded how long it took for us to take action to halt the genocide and ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia as that country split apart in the 1980s. 

Yet, positively, based on reports in recent days, I am reminded that there is goodness in people, for example, as Germany has agreed to take 600,000-800,000 refugees and the Head of the European Commission is demanding that all members of the Union accept quotas to accept refugees.

I am reminded by how we in the United States have benefitted from and sought the refuge in the privileged position which we have because great oceans separate us from the continent of Europe and the Middle East.  This was true in World War I and World War II and it’s true now in terms of refugee immigration.  Most recently, the President has called for admitting 10,000 refugees from Syria during the coming year, less than Australia, not to mention Germany and other Western European countries.

Some say we are “threatened” by our own “immigration problem.”  The fact is that the flow of people between Mexico and the United States right now nets to zero. 

Some have said, including Ohio’s Governor Kasich, that, while we should do something, the Syrian refugee problem is a “European problem.”  Why would we say that?  We had our hands in the creation of the conditions that helped lead to the genocide and ethnic cleansing which is driving this refugee crisis today.  Even more, we are part of the world community that needs to deal with conditions that threaten the lives of innocent people.

I was deeply troubled by Thomas Friedman’s column on Wednesday, September 9:  “You Haven’t Seen This Play Before.”  Without minimizing the extraordinary challenge of the situation we face, in fact, “we have seen this play before.”

We saw it as Yugoslavia broke up.  We’ve seen it in countries of Africa: Darfur, Nigeria, Sudan, and the Congo.  Decades ago, we saw it in Eastern Europe after the Nazis came in and eliminated effective government.  As Timothy Snyder in his new book so cogently describes, that provided a fulcrum in which the Holocaust had even a deadlier effect.

Friedman says, “If we’re honest, we have only two ways to halt this refugee flood and we don’t want to choose either:  build a wall and isolate these regions of disorder, or occupy them with boots on the ground, crush the bad guys and build a new order based on real citizenship, a vast project that would take two generations.”  He goes on to say that, “We fool ourselves that there is a sustainable, easy third way:  just keep taking more refugees or create ‘no-fly zones’ here or there.”

What terribly disappoints me in this column is that Friedman does not go on to describe what, even if difficult and uncertain, are the paths to make the most of this situation.  Fortunately, Nick Kristof did that in his column of 9/10 (see link):
What these paths are is pretty clear:
·      We must do everything we can to provide haven to those refugees whose lives are threatened, especially those whose lives are threatened because of a minority religious belief or ethnicity.
·      As part of this, we must significantly strengthen the humanitarian support in those neighboring countries (e.g., Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey) which already have received hundreds of thousands of refugees.
·      We need to do everything possible to re-establish a stable environment in the countries involved so people can return safely and those still there can safely remain.

On the first point, remember there were 60 million refugees after World War II.  The world didn’t throw up its hands and say that is an impossible number to accommodate.  No, with great difficulty leaders dealt with the situation, including with the Marshall Plan.  Yes, the number of refugees is enormous, but if all major countries get into the act, it probably can be handled. 

No doubt, the root solution has to involve the creation of at least minimally stable conditions in Syria that will allow people to stay/return to their homes.  To do this, the right leaders must come to the table to resolve how to do this.  The task is incredibly complex as we have learned in the Balkans.

Take Syria:  Clearly, Russia, Europe, the United States, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia (and perhaps China and others) need to meet with Syrian leadership and devise and implement a plan to restore civil order and deal with the ISIS epidemic.  Much as the Dayton Peace Talks did, this will require singular leadership.  If this doesn’t happen, the tragedy risks worsening.

In my view, it is unrealistic for the United States to start out with the position that this solution cannot involve Assad.  Yes, he is a brutal dictator, just as Hussein and Khadafi were.  But at a cost to human life far lower than today, they kept their countries together.  Most importantly, we will not achieve a practical solution if the principal countries, including Western Europe, the United States, Russia and Iran, are not at the table.

Somebody needs to make that happen and, if the United States isn’t leaning forward to lead, I fear it won’t happen.  The time for decisive action by the world community is now.


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