The sight of refugees streaming across the Mediterranean, only to wind up in detention centers and then boats back to Turkey, shocks our sense of justice. They have risked their lives to flee and many have died before and during the crossings. Most have left war zones. Families with young children are desperate to find relief of any kind. There are few alternatives, certainly not alternatives commensurate with the dangers of staying where they were. They have legitimate reasons to leave, but no place to go.
The initial euphoria of safe passage to Germany has ended. The dream of not only leaving war but starting new lives in a welcoming and promising environment has disappeared in fears of terrorists, barbed wire fences and fascist nativism. The migrants have not been welcomed with open arms; borders have quickly closed. Angry mobs have replaced the initial gracious German volunteers.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
This quote comes from Emma Lazarus' sonnet, “The New Colossus,” part of which appears on the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. Some of my relatives passed through Ellis Island. None of them had passports; none of them was sent back to Europe. Does this mean that all the refugees should automatically be admitted into Europe, free to choose where they wish to go? Certainly not.
Nevertheless, some historical perspective is helpful. Following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, thousands of Vietnamese fled the country. What was referred to as “boat people” reached 54,000 in June 1979 alone. The United Nations convened an international conference at the highest levels in Geneva in July 1979. The United States was represented by Vice-President Walter Mondale. The result was the Orderly Departure Program, which saw a sharp decline in the number of people fleeing Vietnam and a radical increase in resettlement to other countries.
There are obvious differences with this example and the current situation. There are obvious differences between those fleeing the civil wars in Syria and other conflicts in the region with those fleeing Vietnam and with those arriving on the shores of the United States in the late 19th century.
But a comparison between the 1979 conference and the March 30, 2016, United Nations conference on Syrian refugees is striking. Last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees asked for a dramatic increase in resettlement pledges for Syrian refugees. The high-level meeting produced pledges for a mere 6,000 more refugee and humanitarian admissions. “The Syrian refugee conference might more accurately have been named ‘Global Responsibility Avoidance,’” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch.
There should be no knee-jerk reaction to intervene in the war in Syria to stop the fighting to enable the refugees to return. Liberal intervention, even the Responsibility to Protect, has not proven successful in Iraq or Libya. “Samantha, enough, I’ve already read your book,” President Obama reportedly snapped at Samantha Power, cited in a lengthy recent journal article about Obama’s foreign policy. The debate about the United States’ direct or indirect intervention in Syria has pitted enthusiastic liberal interventionists such as Ms. Power, author of A Problem from Hell, then a member of the National Security Council, and more prudent advisors who have counseled winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan before sending troops to another front. Obama has chosen the prudent side.
There is no simple solution. Neither an open door policy admitting all migrants nor a military intervention against Assad to stop the flow at its source seems reasonable. Nonetheless, a more humane and organized effort to deal with the crisis is called for. There must be some justice, if not dignity, for those fleeing from war and who have a genuine fear of persecution. The examples of the United States in the 19th century and the Geneva Conference of 1979 may not be possible to reproduce, but they are case studies of what was done at a specific time to relieve suffering. Are we so incapable today of being creative that we cannot find some solution?