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Trudy Rubin: Refugee crisis calls for humanitarian response in West


When July Fourth rolls around, I always think of my grandparents, who emigrated to the “land of the free” from Russia, which undoubtedly saved their lives and enabled mine. Needless to say, I believe immigrants are a source of America’s strength.

But this year, when musing on immigration, my thoughts turn to the record numbers of desperate migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean in flimsy boats organized by Libyan smugglers. More than 137,000 refugees crossed from January to June, landing in Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain, an 83 percent increase from the same period in 2014. Last year, more than 3,200 drowned.

Hundreds of thousands more are said to be waiting to depart from Libya, and the United Nations expects the numbers to soar as the year progresses. The bulk of them – Syrians, Afghans and Eritreans – are fleeing from war.

This last point is what makes it so vital for the West to rethink its approach to the refugee tsunami washing over Europe’s shores.

Sadly, the European Union has proved as hapless at handling the refugee crisis as it has in keeping Greece in the euro. European countries have signed a global refugee treaty requiring them to offer refuge to people fleeing war and persecution (migrants seeking a better life are not entitled to such protections).

But at a time of economic uncertainty and terrorist scares, when right-wing parties play on xenophobic fears, European publics are hostile to taking in more refugees.

Running scared, European leaders have failed even to devise a mandatory plan for all 28 countries to take in 40,000 refugees among them – a pittance of the number pouring into Italy and Greece.

Instead, the EU has toyed with, and abandoned, plans to sink the boats of smugglers. Some European officials dream of imitating the Australians, who deport refugee boat people to Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Meantime, Hungary and Bulgaria are building fences to stop the overland flow via Turkey and the Balkans.

Yet, EU policies based mainly on interdiction are doomed to failure. So long as Libya remains in total chaos and disarray, the Europeans won’t get permission from its divided government to sink the boats of smugglers in its waters.

More important, such efforts underestimate the level of desperation driving those fleeing violent conflicts, especially Syrians. More than 122,000 Syrians sought asylum in Europe last year, half of them boat people. Four years of conflict have left almost 11.5 million Syrians – half the population – homeless. Millions are stuck in refugee camps in neighboring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, with no chance to work and often without schooling for their children.

I have been in Zaatari camp, in Jordan, on a flat, dusty, desolate stretch of land near the Syrian border. There, 100,000 Syrians live in tiny trailers in utter despair, their homes destroyed and with no prospects for the future. If you were living there, you, too, might risk crossing the Mediterranean in a leaky boat.

I also have Arab friends, in this case Iraqis, who risked their lives to cross the waters and escape Mideast violence. Their stories explain why interdiction alone can’t stop the refugee flood.

Salam, my Iraqi fixer-driver during the Iraq War, embarked with his children and tiny grandchild on a smuggler’s boat from Turkey to Cyprus, rather than live under death threat in Baghdad because he had helped U.S. soldiers.

His bright, English-speaking son risked his life aboard an open wooden boat, holding 80 Iraqi refugees that traveled for 30 hours on the high seas from Indonesia to Australia. (The boat before his sank with no survivors.) The young man knew he might die but decided he had to take the risk. His boat was the last to arrive before Australia started turning boat people back.

Until Libya stabilizes, EU officials can’t so easily interdict those crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

Instead, the Europeans – and the United States – need to contemplate a more proactive policy, for at least part of the problem. They need to address the Syrian refugee crisis much closer to home.

I believe the EU and United States should devote far more serious attention to diplomatic – or military – ways to bring the Syrian conflict to a close. Otherwise, the number of refugees fleeing Syria (not to mention Iraqis fleeing the Islamic State group) will continue to rise, and the most desperate will set sail for Europe. Others, equally desperate or deprived of any better option, may decide to join jihadi groups and fight.

This is a reality that Brussels, and Washington, must face – and soon.

But at minimum, the West must pay more attention to the humanitarian crisis that is propelling the flight of Syrian refugees. The country’s neighbors, especially Jordan and Lebanon, cannot feed, house and educate millions of Syrian refugees indefinitely, especially when U.N. pleas for humanitarian assistance remain largely unfilled. Just last week, the United Nations said it was slashing food aid to nearly 1.6 million needy Syrian refugees because of funding shortfalls.

Arab Gulf states have helped somewhat, but hardly enough. Western donors need to contribute more and press the wealthy sheikdoms to donate bigger sums. (They should also, although they probably won’t, resettle tens of thousands of Syrians in Western countries.) Unless they act, the flood of Syrian refugees heading for Europe will rise higher.

As David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, eloquently put it: “The best thing we can do is strengthen the humanitarian effort upstream, because by the time ships are pulling bodies from the Mediterranean, it is too late.”

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her email address is
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