The Syrian Migrant Crisis

by Joseph McKeown

The horrific images of the drowned Syrian boy, three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, as well as images of refugees stranded in the Budapest train station and other tragic news reports including the seventy-one migrants who suffocated to death in a refrigerated truck in Austria, all have led to renewed calls for more action to be taken on behalf of approximately four million displaced Syrians.

“The migrant crisis in Europe is essentially self-inflicted,” Lina Khatib, a research associate at the University of London and former head of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said in the New York Times. “Had European countries sought serious solutions to political conflicts like the one in Syria, and dedicated enough time and resources to humanitarian assistance abroad, Europe would not be in this position today.”

Europe, Iceland, St. Louis, and the Pope Offer Help

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany is investing six billion euros ($6.7 billion) to cope with the migrant crisis, France has committed to receiving 24,000 migrants, and Britain has announced a plan to accommodate 20,000 Syrian migrants.

In addition to these actions by major European nations, one of the first countries to offer increased help came from Iceland, whose population is just over 300,000. After the government pledged to assist just fifty Syrians, author and professor Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir asked Icelanders on Facebook to speak out if they wanted the government to do more. More than 12,000 people responded to her Facebook group, “Syria is calling,” to sign an open letter to their welfare minister, Eygló Harðar. “I think people have had enough of seeing news stories from the Mediterranean and refugee camps of dying people and they want something done now,” she said to Iceland’s RÚV television. Icelanders offered to house refugees and provide clothes, assist in job training, and give language lessons.

Demonstrating how strongly the plight of Syrian migrants have affected people all over, another grass roots offer to help has come from St. Louis. Greg Johnson, a Presbyterian pastor, said that St. Louis should welcome at least 60,000 migrants, citing the city’s “track record of welcoming Muslims into our city and trusting them with our communities.” Johnson pointed out that when St. Louis previously accepted 60,000 Bosnian refugees, the city hugely benefited. “Entire neighborhoods saw revitalization, new businesses were started, and the city’s decades-long decline in population slowed. Our region is better for their having joined us.”

Pope Francis has also called on every European parish, religious community, monastery, and sanctuary to take in one refugee family.

What Is the US Doing?

Despite a prescient call by senators earlier this year urging President Obama to allow at least 65,000 displaced Syrians to resettle in the US—a move which was derided by some at the time—there is only likely to be a slight increase in the quota of Syrian migrants, unless changes are made.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, who signed the letter urging Mr. Obama to accept more Syrian refugees, said in the New York Times: “We knew of the mounting problem for the humanitarian issues, the moral issues.” And in BuzzFeed she said: “Europe should clearly take the lead because they are close in proximity, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take part, and doesn’t mean some countries in the Mideast like Saudi Arabia shouldn’t take some refugees as well.”

Eric P. Schwartz, a former assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, and now dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, said presidential action is needed for any changes to come about. “The folks who lead our humanitarian work in the government are the best in the world, but you need the president of the United States and the secretary of state, but the president in particular, to speak out about our responsibilities here and to define the challenge,” he said in the New York Times. Increasing the number of Syrians granted asylum to 50,000 on an emergency basis would also send “an extremely powerful signal to Europe and to the world.”

UPDATE: 9/11/2015. President Obama announced plans yesterday for the United States to take in at least 10,000 displaced Syrians over the next fiscal year. This comes after mounting criticism that the US is not doing enough to assist the approximately four million displaced Syrians. Responding to this announcement in Buzzfeed, Paul O’Brien, Oxfam’s vice president for police and campaigns, said: "The White House’s pledge is a start but it just scratches the surface...The U.S. can and must do more to help ensure that thousands of Syrians fleeing violence have the safety and security they need."