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We know how to solve the refugee crisis — but it will take more than money

Syrian refugee families wait in line in a crowded makeshift registration center on the Greek Island of Kos.
Syrian refugee families wait in line in a crowded makeshift registration center on the Greek Island of Kos.
Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

What can I do to help Syrian refugees?

People around the world are asking that question with growing urgency after photographs of a drowned Syrian toddler named Aylan Kurdi shocked the world into seeing the refugee crisis unfolding in Europe. Often, the answer that comes back is to give money. And, to be sure, there is a real financial need to fill: The UN is far short of the $5.5 billion it needs to administer Syrian refugees, millions of whom are stuck in crowded and chronically undersupplied camps where they are subject to cold, hunger, and the ravages of disease.

More money would help the world's 19 million refugees, of whom 4 million are Syrian, but it wouldn't solve the problem that is the ultimate cause of their suffering: They need a new country to call home.

This is a political problem; money can't solve it. Only governments, and a fairly short list of governments at that, have the power to provide a new home for these refugees. Accomplishing this would require tremendous political will, which is both what makes it so difficult and a reason regular people can play a role in solving the crisis that will ultimately be much more important than giving money.

The problem with a global system based on the principle that all nations should help refugees — but only if they're forced to

Syrians displaced around the Middle East

As this map shows, the majority of Syrian refugees are living in neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.

(European Commission)

The good news is that international law does promise refugees a solution. And there is broad agreement that these 19 million refugees should be allowed to go somewhere; that these innocent people should not be forced to suffer torture, rape, enslavement, death, or any of the countless other forms of persecution that caused them to flee their homes.

But it turns out there is a huge difference between "the refugees should be allowed to go somewhere" and "the refugees should be allowed to come here." It’s that second proposition where the global system breaks down. The bad news is that the international system doesn't currently have a solution to that.

The core principle of international refugee law says that people should never be forced to return to a country where they will face persecution on account of their race, religion, national origin, political opinion, or social group. But this means global asylum law is built around what countries cannot do (deport refugees to countries where they would be subject to persecution) rather than what countries are affirmatively obligated to do. Countries have essentially zero obligation to help refugees who aren’t already within their borders.

The result is that refugees usually end up stuck in whatever country they first arrive in, which typically means a country that is adjacent to or near their own. So those countries often end up hosting large numbers of refugees without ever making a political decision to do so — and without any ability to compel other countries to help share the burden.

That is why, for example, the largest populations of Syrian refugees are in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Those are not countries that are really able to absorb millions of refugees in a short period of time, or even sustainably host the underresourced camps that house them. But the nature of our global refugee system means those countries are where the majority of Syrian refugees have ended up. International law says those countries cannot expel the refugees, which is mostly a good thing — it means millions of desperate people have at least minimal protections.

But because no other nations have an obligation to help countries like Turkey, the only thing that will get the refugees to countries that are wealthy and stable enough to easily absorb them — the US, for example, and much of Europe — is if those countries make the affirmative decision to accept and even resettle them. But in the case of the Syrian crisis, that never happened. The US and Europe ignored the growing refugee crisis until it showed up on Europe's doorstep.

Europe and the US are not taking in nearly enough refugees

Syrian refugees meme

Most European countries are not just unwilling to take in a sufficient number of refugees, but are in fact working to keep those refugees out. (Germany, a laudable exception, expects hundreds of thousands of asylum applicants this year after voluntarily making an asylum rule change, but it stands largely alone.) Instead, the European Union has left border states such as Greece and Italy to shoulder the burden of refugee arrivals more or less on their own.

The United States, for its part, has the resources to resettle more people and a resettlement program with the expertise to do so, but has thus far refused to do much with those resources, secure in the knowledge that the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean will keep refugees from forcing the matter by showing up unannounced.

There are signs that this is starting to change as a result of the political backlash generated by the devastating photo of Kurdi's death. The UK, for instance, pledged to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. And France has agreed to accept 24,000 refugees in the next two years.

But those numbers are minuscule compared with the overall scale of the crisis. Doctors without Borders estimates that there are currently up to 25,000 refugees on the tiny Greek island of Lesbos alone, with thousands more arriving every day. And the United States has pledged to resettle an even tinier number of Syrian refugees — just 5,000 to 8,000 by the end of 2016.

As more refugees arrive in Europe's southern states, it would make sense to distribute them throughout the European Union. This would be better for the refugees, many of whom are currently stuck in squalid camps in places such as the Greek island of Kos, and it would be better for the EU, by making the burden more manageable. It would also be far more in keeping with the way the EU's open borders are supposed to work in principle. But many EU states are doing the opposite, imposing stricter border controls and resisting plans for refugee resettlement quotas.

So not only are Western countries refusing to sufficiently help the refugees stranded in camps in the Middle East or elsewhere, but in Europe they are also failing to help even those who have shown up at their borders — even though this refusal is hurting not just the refugees but the EU itself.

Why Western countries don't want to help refugees

Missed me? (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Donald Trump.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Accepting refugees is always politically difficult. But this current crisis happens to coincide with a moment of tremendous anxiety about national identity in both the US and Europe. That has left politicians wary of a backlash if they support increased immigration.

And in the case of Syria, that reluctance is compounded by Americans' fears of Islamist terrorism, making politicians even more hesitant to take in large numbers of immigrants lest one commit a terrorist attack that would cause voters to blame the officials who supported Syrian resettlement.

Across Europe, anti-immigration populism has fueled the rise of parties that combine a hard-line stance on immigration with nationalist rhetoric about the need to protect those countries' traditions, cultures, and institutions. These include parties like the UK Independence Party, France's National Front, Finland's True Finns, and the Sweden Democrats. And in the US, Donald Trump has enjoyed great success in the GOP primary by embracing a similar platform of harsh opposition to immigration and vague nationalist platitudes about American "greatness."

None of these far-right parties are currently setting policy in their respective countries. But the point is that their sentiments reflect a larger rise in anti-immigration and nativist populism, which can be seen in mainstream politics as well.

In the UK, for instance, a recent poll found that an astonishing 67 percent of people thought the government should deploy the army to keep immigrants, many of whom are desperate refugees, from crossing into the UK through the Channel Tunnel. UK Foreign Minister Philip Hammond claimed in August that migrants from Africa were a threat to Europe's "standard of living and social infrastructure."

Last week, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban defended his government's harsh treatment of refugees by explicitly calling them a threat to Europe's Christian identity. "We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture. Most are not Christian, but Muslim," he said. "Or is it not worrying that Europe’s Christian culture is already barely able to maintain its own set of Christian values?"

The political forces driving these attitudes are complex, but they often come down to an anxiety about change. Political scientist Deborah Schildkraut, who studies immigration and national identity, told me in July that this kind of anti-immigrant populism is often driven by a deep sense of insecurity over demographic change.

Taking in large numbers of refugees requires accepting that those refugees might bring changes to a nation's identity or culture. And while that is often economically and culturally enriching, it can also feel scary to people.

That change is often beneficial not just for the refugees but for the host countries as well. Better food! New cultures! An expanded workforce with new skills! Albert Einstein was a refugee, and so was Sergey Brin — who might come tomorrow?

But immigration, especially on a larger scale, can also feel scary to people. When their communities change in small but important ways — the grocery stores start stocking halal meats or unfamiliar spices, mosques get built down the street from churches — that can feel like neighborhoods and communities that were once designed for people like them are now interested in catering to someone else. And for people in the US, that can feel especially frightening in the case of Syrian refugees, because the American media has consistently conflated Muslim communities with the threat of terrorism.

And therein lies the real problem: This crisis has arisen at a time when many people in wealthy countries already feel tremendously threatened by immigration, and by the idea that their towns, communities, and cultures are changing in ways that feel uncomfortable or scary. The idea of accepting tens or hundreds of thousands of refugees — recall that there are 19 million globally, and 4 million just from Syria — compounds that anxiety, however irrational it may be.

What it would take to solve the crisis: transforming Western politics around immigration

Police face off against xenophobic rioters in Heidenau, Germany

Police face off against anti-refugee rioters in Heidenau, Germany.

(ARNO BURGI/AFP/Getty Images)

These political forces in Western countries are, whether we like to admit it or not, a big part of the refugee crisis. It's why refugees can't just pick up and move to the countries that are most able to absorb them, and indeed why even the ones who make it to those countries may still end up stuck in camps or sleeping in train stations.

Solving the refugee crisis, then, requires a number of things, but one of the most difficult would be changing Western politics such that these countries will finally be willing to take on enough refugees to abate the crisis. That means getting these countries to a place where their leaders and citizens are willing not just to grant asylum to the refugees who show up on their borders, but to help resettle the millions who are languishing in refugee camps.

Yes, doing that would be expensive and logistically daunting in the short term, even though immigration would almost certainly be a strong net positive in the long term. There is no question about that. But these are the richest countries in the world. They have tremendous logistical and organizational resources at their disposal. They can handle refugee families. The greater challenge would be creating the political will for these drastic but necessary steps.

That means compelling political leaders to act, but it also means acknowledging that absorbing large numbers of refugees will change our communities in the future, and accepting that change when it happens. It means overcoming widespread public anxiety about immigration such that the idea of large numbers of foreign refugees showing up in our communities no longer sounds scary, and indeed become desirable.

There's no easy checklist for making that happen, no online donation or weekend-long volunteer jaunt that will solve this. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do those things, as well — by all means, every bit helps — but with 19 million refugees displaced, and only a relatively small number of countries that are really able to absorb them, the only real solution is for those countries to accept and resettle the refugee families. But in order for us to do that, one of the biggest challenges for us to overcome is ourselves.

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