Wake Up, World: Time to Step Up Support for Syria's Refugees

"Morality aside, failing to provide adequate help to the three countries caring for more than 90 percent of Syria’s refugees amounts to strategic stupidity..."

The heart-wrenching stories and pictures of people fleeing Syria’s bloodletting have stirred debate, anguish and abundant finger pointing. The latest catalyst was the photograph of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on Turkey’s coast after the jam-packed boat he and his family boarded to escape Syria capsized. (His mother and brother, aged five, also drowned; their grief-consumed father survived.)

The EU is now bickering over which member state should take how many refugees. European governments’ responses to the soaring inflow, from Syria and elsewhere, have varied. Germany has admitted some 100,000 asylum seekers since 2011. Sweden has received 14,000 from Syria alone since the civil war began there that year. Chancellor Angela Merkel recently allowed several thousand Syrians stranded in (an inhospitable) Hungary to enter Germany via Austria.

She is now pressing other EU governments to pitch in, and in concert. Under an emerging EU allocation plan, Germany will admit 32,000 additional refugees over two years; France: 24,000; and Spain: nearly 15,000—altogether about 60 percent of the EU’s total number. Separately, and under pressure, British prime minister David Cameron eventually agreed to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020, the UK having accepted some 5,000 asylum applications from Syria since 2011. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, by contrast, wants to reject the refugees, in the name of defending Christian Europe.

Germany’s generosity has not been the norm in Europe. The data on accepted asylum applications—on average less than half tend to be approved and the process can take up to a year—show that Orban’s spirit trumps Merkel’s in many EU states, notably the eastern regions, Germany’s included.

But Europe is not an outlier. Indeed, moral minimalism is even more evident elsewhere. The scholar and human-rights advocate, Michael Ignatieff, observes in a recent op-ed piece that his native Canada has admitted only 1,074 Syrians; the United States: 1,500; Australia: 2,200; and Brazil: fewer than 2,000. He’s outraged by these paltry numbers, but Amnesty International reports that Russia, South Korea and Singapore are among the economically advanced countries that haven’t allowed any Syrian refugees in, adding that worldwide only 104,410 placements have been offered since 2011—less than 3 percent of the refugees now living in Lebanese, Turkish and Jordanian camps. 

Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon struggle to cope with their four million Syrian refugees. Together, Iraq and Egypt host another 381,838. By contrast, the oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchies condemn Assad’s brutality loudly and routinely, but have not resettled any Syrian refugees. That’s not for lack of resources; their per-capita incomes are among the world’s highest. Despite the tumble in oil prices, Kuwait’s was $55,470 last year, and Saudi Arabia’s was $26,340. (The figure for Jordan, where the number of Syrian refugees is expected to top 900,000 by year’s end, is less than half of Saudi Arabia’s.) True, the Gulf countries have contributed money to UN agencies caring for Syria’s refugees: Saudi Arabia has given $18.4 million; Kuwait: $304.6 million. That’s not chump change, but neither is it generous considering that the former’s foreign exchange reserves totaled $756 billion in 2014, and the latter’s $38.5 billion.

Pundits and activists have proffered various solutions: bomb Assad’s bastions, create a safe haven in Syria to stanch the refugee outflow, arm the “moderate opposition,” admit many more refugees to the West. None of these ideas provides a pathway to ending Syria’s refugee catastrophe.

No country is prepared to bomb Assad unless the United States takes the lead. President Obama has been unwilling, and Americans have not demanded a change of course. War-weary after the long Iraq and Afghan campaigns, they are also rightly skeptical that Assad’s fall will produce calm, rather than continue the civil war.