The death toll resulting from Europe’s paralysis in responding to the influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa continues to rise. Hundreds of thousands of others have suffered unnecessarily. The European Union’s reputation has been battered, despite bold leadership from Germany, Sweden, and the European Commission. Bitter divisions among member states have jeopardized the Schengen Area of borderless travel within the EU. Populists are having a field day.
But the EU’s failure to devise a cohesive response has had another dire, if less commented-upon, consequence: As Europe’s leaders stumble from one inconclusive summit to another, they have handed the rest of the world an excuse for similar inaction. If the EU cannot get its act together to confront a crisis directly affecting its member countries, why should others leap into action?
Let there be no misunderstanding: Europe alone is not responsible for the wellbeing of all the people fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria, and elsewhere. These desperate souls are the collective responsibility of the entire world community, as the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees makes abundantly clear. But the immoral and xenophobic posturing of a handful of EU states has allowed other countries to be bystanders, in turn damaging the global refugee system – of which Europeans have been the main beneficiaries over the past 64 years.
So, regardless of what European leaders decide at their latest summit, it is past time for the international community to act in support of the world’s refugees and others who have been forcibly displaced. A few countries already have stepped up. Brazil has issued thousands of humanitarian visas to Syrians. Venezuela has offered to take in 20,000. But most have been noticeably silent.
Today, just 100,000 out of 20 million refugees benefit each year from the UN refugee agency’s resettlement program, which provides permanent new homes in stable countries (a mere 26 participate). Most of the rest languish in conditions that offer generally dismal prospects.
Expanding resettlement capacity, therefore, should be one goal of global action. The potential is enormous. In Iceland, 11,000 families have offered to host refugees, as have many thousands of others throughout Europe. Resettlement via “private sponsorship” – whereby individuals, communities, and NGOs take responsibility for families – is stymied only by governments’ failure to set up systems to vet and match refugees with sponsors.
Equally important, adequate support must finally be given to frontline states, like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. This is the best way to stem refugees’ dangerous efforts to cross the Mediterranean. Incomprehensibly, the world has failed to provide funds for even basic needs like food and housing, let alone for the schools, health care, and training that would persuade refugees to stay closer to home.
The UN refugee agency’s funding for Syria, which supports humanitarian agencies and development aid for neighboring countries, has received about one-third of the $4.5 billion needed this year. The World Food Program, a backbone of the refugee system, has met only two-thirds of its 2015 funding needs, compelling it to slash support to hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
But global action must go well beyond offers of temporary or permanent refuge for the displaced, or funding for frontline countries. Countries could contribute in many other ways as well.
Perhaps the single most effective contribution would be to establish less cumbersome means for asylum-seekers to reach safety. Providing humanitarian visas – which can be issued with minimal delay – constitutes one clear commitment countries could make immediately. Over time, countries could also establish procedures enabling asylum-seekers to apply more easily for labor, student, or family reunification visas.
Meanwhile, special economic zones could be established in frontline countries to attract investment and create jobs for refugees, with the G-20 offering preferential trade status. Tax breaks and other support could be given to companies offering opportunities to refugees.
A global response also must harness the extraordinary potential of civil society and the private sector. Indeed, the real leadership in this crisis has come from millions of European citizens, whose everyday acts of compassion have put their craven leaders to shame.
Then there are the bold actions of moral entrepreneurs like Chris and Regina Catrambone, who created the Migrant Offshore Aid Station to rescue people at sea; the founders of Refugees Welcome, the Airbnb-type platform to match asylum seekers with families willing to host them; and Refugee Air, a pioneering Swedish effort to enable qualified asylum-seekers to fly to Europe.
These and similar civil-society initiatives need to be supported, coordinated, and amplified.
The potential on the corporate side is immense as well. Google is matching public contributions to a variety of organizations responding to the crisis. The Ikea Foundation is a major partner of the UN refugee agency in providing shelter to refugees. And Turkish-American Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of Chobani yogurt, has pledged $700 million to support refugees. There is no reason that thousands of companies cannot make similar commitments.
The Syrian exodus is the largest refugee crisis for a generation, and the EU should be doing much more than it is. But not all solutions will come from Europe – and there is no legal or moral reason why they should.
Peter Sutherland, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for International Migration and Development, is former Director General of the World Trade Organization, EU Commissioner for Competition, and Attorney General of Ireland.