Saturday, November 12, 2016

A Better Way to Respond to Emigration Crises

Over the past several years, almost 5 million Syrian refugees have fled their battle-torn country for safety in other countries.  Most have gone to neighboring countries, overwhelming their resources.  Roughly 500,000 have fled to Europe creating, together with another 500,000 refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries, the well-reported refugee crisis there.

This is a crisis on several levels.  It is an obvious humanitarian crisis as the refugees have left their country not willingly but of necessity for their safety, and they really have no place to go.  And it’s a crisis for the countries to which the refugees flee because the large numbers both overwhelm the resources of the host country to care for and integrate the refugees and unsettle the established social context of the countries.

The current lack of anything that could remotely be called a “system” has been a disaster for all concerned.  The international community, i.e. the United Nations, needs to come up with a better system.

Prior to WWII, during parts of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, there were massive waves of migration from various countries in Europe mostly to the United States.  These migrations did not become refugee crises because at that time the United States and other countries receiving the refugees needed them to populate their countries.  

However, by the 1930s, when German Jews tried to emigrate from Germany to other countries, most had set up strict quota systems for immigration because they were no longer open to masses of new migrants.  And so, for example, by the time my father  started trying to leave Germany in 1937, there was NO country to which he could go.  All the doors were closed, even countries such as Australia and Bolivia.  Luckily he finally managed to get his family out, but many were not as fortunate.

After experiencing the huge numbers of refugees created by the havoc of WWII, the United Nations in 1950 created the High Commission for Refugees to help care for refugees from conflict.  And it has done the best it can, given its limited mandate, to ensure that refugee asylum rights are protected and that they do not live in squalor; that they have some modicum of orderliness in their lives.

But experience has shown that what refugees need is to be resettled, not just housed someplace in temporary housing until the crisis that caused them to flee is over and they can return to their homelands.  The current problem in Europe is that, with the exception of Germany, the countries are not prepared to take in so many refugees, either politically or logistically, and so the refugees suffer.  The scope of the problem is just too large.

What is needed is a new international compact in which the signatories agree that in cases where civil war or persecution creates a mass of refugees they will accept refugees and resettle them according to an established quota system based on the country’s population/size and economy, or whatever other factors are considered appropriate.  Yes, that means that many refugees would not get to go to their country of choice, but a country cannot be expected to put its own economy and social peace in jeopardy by its humanitarian response to a refugee crisis.  European Jews were willing to go to any country that would take them.  Modern-day refugees need to be asked to accept similar conditions.

The other piece of the puzzle needed in such a new compact regards the transport of refugees to their new homes, whether from the crisis point or a neighboring country.  We have seen the horror, deprivation, and exploitation refugees suffer when they have to flee across water, whether from Vietnam, Cuba, North Africa, or Turkey.  Somehow, the compact needs to deal with this issue.

The world is a community of nations and people.  We are all ultimately God’s children.  And we all have a social obligation to care for our fellow man.  It is past time for the United Nations to fashion a system that works for both refugees and receiving countries.