"What is at stake is nothing less than the survival and well-being of a generation of innocents." -- Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Over the past couple weeks, it has finally become impossible for Europe and the "West" to ignore the dire situation currently being faced by millions of refugees. Boats are arriving (or sinking in many cases) throughout Greece and Italy, while massive waves of people are walking through the countryside of Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary to search for a better life in Germany or Scandinavia. Europe is finally waking up to this as they can no longer ignore when tens of thousands of people all converge on its borders at once, but this problem has been going on for over four years. To date, there are currently 7,600,000 Syrians internally displaced and about 4,000,000 classified as refugees outside Syria. It should be noted that not every person migrating to Europe is a Syrian refugee. Many of these people are migrating from places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and sub-Saharan Africa. However, this post will focus predominantly on the Syrian refugee crisis. Put simply, this is the single greatest humanitarian crisis the world has seen since the end of the Second World War. There are a lot of misconceptions about these refugees, so let's start getting some facts straight.
Probably the biggest misconception about these refugees is that they are all poor, hopeless people looking for European governments to provide them with welfare checks for the rest of their lives. While it is certainly true that many (like hundreds of thousands) of refugees have very little money, there are very significant numbers of educated professionals and middle-class families making the long and dangerous journey. They have plenty of money to spend to help improve their lives once they get to Europe, while some are even planning on continuing graduate studies and getting good jobs in places like Germany and Sweden. These individuals have the means to support themselves, but will likely require a little direction and assistance from European governments to get started. Finally, they often cite political and religious persecution (this includes Christians AND Muslims), random bombings from loyalist and rebel forces, and conscription into military forces as the main reasons for fleeing the region.
Another major misconception is that all of these refugees are pouring into Europe only. To date, there are an estimated 600,000 refugees who have attempted to enter Europe from either the Middle East or North Africa (with many dying in the process). However, the vast majority of refugees are ending up in the neighboring countries of Turkey (2,000,000), Jordan (600,000), Lebanon (1,100,000 million) and Iraq (250,000). Jordan and Lebanon are quickly becoming nations with majority refugee populations. Jordan's population was only eight million before this crisis (with nearly 2,000,000 of them being Palestinian refugees). Lebanon had just over 4,000,000 inhabitants in 2010 (almost half of whom immigrated there), and has taken in at least 1,000,000 more Syrians. Middle East cultures tend to emphasize large family support networks, so most of these people are staying with friends and relatives, not just in camps. This has put a massive strain on families and governments alike.
So why aren't the Saudis and the other rich Arabian Gulf nations helping out? Well they are, but few people are really paying attention to it. So far, these nations have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to humanitarian efforts. But admittedly they have taken in very few refugees into their own lands. One of the main reasons these nations are not eager to suddenly welcome a million new residents is because this would dramatically alter the political landscape of these countries.
Saudi Arabia, for example, does not allow for democratic elections, but instead provides massive public works programs and employment opportunities to its citizens. Basically, the people are generally not calling for elections since life is still pretty good for them. But this is very expensive, and the Saudis would not be able to extend these citizenship rights to all refugees at the risk of going bankrupt. Even a "temporary" housing situation would not stay temporary for long since refugees very rarely return to their homeland. To compare it to a common American debate, to some Arab Gulf citizens, the refugees would be taking jobs and mooching off the government. They would be bringing criminals and terrorists (though some, they assume, are probably good people). Not that any of that is necessarily true, but that is the perception many have. Finally, many of the refugees themselves are not too keen to move to the strictly conservative Gulf states. A majority do not particularly like the Gulf countries and would much rather go to Europe.
Why are so many going all the way to Europe? Well they almost all want the same stability, basic human rights, and freedom that we enjoy (what a concept!). In contrast to the Gulf nations, they know they can expect a reasonable accommodation for their personal religious beliefs and lifestyle choices (anti-Muslim discrimination aside). Many also speak European languages and have skill-sets that would be useful in Europe (or want to continue graduate studies in these countries). Europe has pledged to take 120,000 and is debating measures to accommodate many more (though some expect as many as 800,000 will arrive by the end of 2015. Unfortunately, there has been plenty of resistance to this proposal as well. Hungary, Croatia, and Serbia have been especially outspoken against widespread accommodations for refugees. Not wanting to be completely outdone, the United States has also stepped in to help. So far America has pledged to take at least 10,000 refugees and said it will accept nearly 100,000 immigrants each year by 2017 (of all backgrounds, not just those from the Syrian Civil War). America has always been a refuge for people seeking a better life and our inclusivity is what makes us great. Though the American efforts are commendable, we should remember that there is always more that can be done for people in need.
The last misconception we should clear up is that bringing refugees invites terrorists into the country. We shouldn't deny that there is a small risk that terrorists would be posing as refugees to enter the U.S. and European countries. Nobody denies that basic screening of refugee applicants would be necessary to ensure no obviously bad people enter the country (though it currently takes over a year for an applicant to be accepted). But we can't let exaggerated reports of migrating terrorists and xenophobic attitudes stop us from helping those who truly need it. ISIS (and its supporters) have been exploiting these fears in order to get people to pressure their governments to keep refugees out. The truth is, people have been migrating to this country from unstable and dangerous countries for years. In general, they are seeking to escape violence and terrorism, not cause it.
Overall, the "West" needs to support these people because it is the right thing to do and it helps prevent radicalization (because their improved economic system, stable living conditions, and education will naturally curb many of the leading causes of radicalization). It also undercuts the theme that America and Europe do not care about Muslims (often used as a recruitment tool for terrorists). Recently, nearly 360,000 people suddenly stopped receiving food aid from the World Food Programme. That means 360,000 people are that much closer to complete desperation. Ending the Syrian Civil War is hard. Navigating the geopolitical implications of waves of migrants is hard. Balancing the relationship among Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, and Syria is hard. Feeding people and giving them shelter is easy. We should show empathy, not fear, tolerance, not xenophobia, and warm acceptance, not cold rejection. Because ultimately if you were in this situation, you would be asking for the same help which is being denied to so many. Some people are more than happy to send bombs, guns, and operatives to Syria, but when asked to account for the human lives which have been upended, many sit back and say "not my problem." Suffering is humanity's problem. It is everyone's problem. It is your problem too.
TL;DR: These are not just Syrians or Muslims who need our help, they are people. What will you do about it?