By talking in circles for months this summer, European leaders have allowed their refugee crisis to become a humanitarian catastrophe as winter nears.
In early September, attention focused on the thousands fleeing strife in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere after shocking and heartbreaking photos of a drowned toddler appeared worldwide.
In recent weeks, however, many more babies have washed up on Greek beaches or have drowned in the Mediterranean as other stories made bigger headlines.
At least seven children died in one boat that sank on Wednesday. So far this year, nearly 800,000 migrants have survived the dangerous sea journey to Europe, but more than 3,400 have died or gone missing. The European Union projects that 3 million more could arrive by 2017.
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Yet, for all the summit meetings and grand pronouncements, there’s still no consensus on a coherent strategy, much less a plan ambitious enough to meet this enormous challenge.
Indeed, key international officials met this week to find a “new” approach. A senior United Nations official called for helping more Syrian refugees closer to their homes, so they can return if the fighting ends. She was supported by seven international aid agencies, which called for a long-term “New Deal” that includes more investment in neighboring countries including Jordan and Lebanon, more rights for Syrians to work in these nations and stronger protections to seek asylum outside the region.
On Thursday, EU leaders signed a $2 billion aid agreement with African nations to try to stem the flow of migrants and take back those who don’t qualify for asylum, and also announced more aid to Turkey, which is being flooded with refugees.
These steps make so much sense that it’s a travesty that it took this long.
The fate of the 4 million Syrians who have fled since 2011 isn’t entirely Europe’s responsibility. The United States also has an important role, especially since it has led the coalition trying to oust dictator Bashar Assad, with airstrikes and now special forces.
After images of that dead toddler shamed world leaders, the Obama administration announced in late September that it will give $419 million more in humanitarian aid to help Syrian refugees and the countries hosting them, bringing U.S. donations since 2011 to $4.5 billion, more than any other nation.
Also, the U.S. plans to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees during the next year, on top of the paltry 1,500 since the conflict began. Some lawmakers and advocacy groups, however, are calling on the Obama administration to take in as many as 100,000 refugees. Thursday, Canada reaffirmed plans to bring in 25,000 by the end of the year.
Surely, a nation as powerful and generous as America can do more to aid our European allies. But it will be a hard sell to the public if Europe can’t get its act together.
It’s one thing to be shocked by an earthquake or other natural disaster. It’s entirely another to see a human calamity coming for months and not respond in time.
The European Union has splintered on this crisis – between countries such as Greece on the front lines that are pleading for help, poorer nations such as Hungary and Slovenia that have put up fences and wealthier ones such as Germany that have pledged to take in more refugees.
Amnesty International’s Greek branch says the lack of political will is costing lives. “How many drowned refugees and how many dead children are required to activate European ‘values?’ ” it asked.
That’s a very good question.