As social media users flooded the Web with heartbreaking images of Alan Shenu (reported elsewhere in the media as Aylan Kurdi), the 3-year-old who drowned in the Mediterranean and washed ashore in Turkey, citizens pressed their governments to grant a larger number of resettlement visas to refugees from Syria and beyond.
Whatever the number these countries finally decide upon — Germany has made the relatively generous pledge of 500,000 per year, while Britain has proposed a stingier 20,000 for displaced Syrians — the overall response will likely fall short of addressing the magnitude of the current crisis. Millions of Syrian refugees have fled their homes, and in Lebanon and Jordan, they constitute about a third of the population. For these vulnerable states, the burden might soon be too heavy to sustain. In order to put an end to the ongoing tragedy in the Mediterranean, a global international response is necessary. The first priority should be a coordinated resettlement effort.
Two iconic precedents come to mind for this sort of action. First, in response to the Nazi persecution of the European Jews, Franklin D. Roosevelt convened a multilateral conference in July 1938 in Évian, France. However, it went down in history as an enormous failure: With the United States and Britain refusing to take in substantial numbers of Jews, the attendees’ initial commitment to resettle refugees proved hollow.
Multilateral burden-sharing negotiations re-emerged in the late 1970s in response to the exodus of people fleeing Vietnam during the war. When the North Vietnamese took control of the South, thousands of people escaped into the South China Sea in boats, and, as in the Mediterranean today, enormous numbers of them never arrived at any destination. It was clear that without real solutions to help those whose lives were destroyed, boat departures would continue, so in 1979, governments came together in Geneva at the United Nations to negotiate the Orderly Departure Program, which aimed to provide a framework for resettlement.
Thanks to the Orderly Departure Program and a number of similar resettlement programs, almost 2 million visas were granted to Southeast Asian displaced people from 1975 to 1997. The most were resettled to the United States, which took in 1.3 million individuals, but it was by no means an exclusively American effort. Significant numbers found themselves in Canada (202,000), Australia (186,000), France (119,000), Germany (32,000) and the United Kingdom (25,000). Japan, the Netherlands and New Zealand each took more than 10,000. Cold War–era geostrategic interests played a role, to be sure, but so did guilt: The United States in particular seemed to realize that its actions in Asia played a part in this enormous migration, and, moved by images of Vietnamese children not so different from those of Shenu, acted accordingly.
There are many reasons for the disintegration of Iraq, Syria, Libya and now Yemen, and no single grand narrative can capture the entire picture. But the very least we can do is agree that Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, which have taken in millions of refugees, are not to blame.
We cannot ignore the decisive role that the United States and its allies played in bringing about the current refugee crisis. This role began immediately after 9/11, with the invasion of Iraq. The more recent intervention in Libya further contributed to the disaster.
Today the spirit of the Orderly Departure Program should be renewed. Under an agreed framework, those who left Syria and Iraq would register in offices in safe countries of temporary refuge, in the Middle East, Europe or North America. The displaced people would then wait for resettlement in these havens.
It’s true that resettlement was not always quick, and waiting periods led to problems during the Orderly Departure Program. However, one lesson stands: As long as significant numbers of resettlement visas are offered, people won't be quite as ready to risk their lives at sea.
The United States recently promised to increase the number of Syrian resettlement visas from 1,500. These numbers are still too small. Furthermore, creating an international framework to address the refugee crisis is beyond the United States’ responsibility alone. Other countries have consistently participated in armed coalitions in the Middle East. Australia, for example, takes almost no refugees from the region and is treating its contemporary boat people from Asia shamefully. France, the U.K., Spain and other European countries reluctant to take refugees would have to do so in an international — instead of only a European — framework.
With an international agreement, it would be much more difficult for Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to pass the buck.
It is time to convene an international conference to address the Syrian refugee crisis. Just like the one in Geneva in 1979, such a conference would have to consider the Syrian civil war in all its dimensions — economic, military and diplomatic. Only by doing so will it be possible to come up with an adequate solution to refugees’ needs.