LAST WEDNESDAY 51 bodies were found in the hold of a ship off the coast of Libya, would-be refugees who had suffocated at sea. Two days later police in Austria found an abandoned truck on the side of the highway. Inside were 71 bodies, victims of suffocation or thirst. On Friday about 150 people were reported missing and presumed dead after two ships capsized off the coast of Libya. “The world is witnessing its worst refugee crisis in 25 years,” says the nonprofit International Rescue Committee
How did it come to this, and what can be done? The two questions are closely related.
To begin, European nations need to do more to “fight traffickers, protect victims and put in place a system to allow refugees to apply for asylum legally,” the head of the U.N. refugee agency, António Guterres, said . But Europe, with its economic challenges, can’t be expected to solve on its own a problem that is originating in Afghanistan, Sudan, Libya and — above all — Syria. As Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state, and David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary, noted in a Post op-ed last month, more than 11 million Syrians have been made homeless by four-plus years of civil war — and the United States so far has admitted fewer than 1,000. That’s unacceptable.
Of course most displaced Syrians are not going to make their way to the United States or Germany, which is why it’s also crucial for developed nations to help refugees where they are. About 4 million Syrians have been forced out of their country (with about twice as many displaced inside), and they have taken refuge in Turkey (1.9 million), Lebanon (1.1 million) and Jordan (more than 600,000). The burden on the host nations is immense — refugees comprise about a quarter of Lebanon’s population — and the conditions for many are miserable, with a generation of children going unschooled. Yet U.N. member nations have met only 33 percent of the funding target to provide for these people’s basic needs.
Even full funding, though, would alleviate without solving the problem. The real lesson of this summer of misery is that the world cannot turn away from nations in trouble and expect to remain immune from the problems that result. More than four years ago President Obama decided that the United States would stay aloof from Syria’s democracy uprising. He judged that the United States had no interest in heading off a civil war in Libya. From Afghanistan to Yemen, many of his advisers argued that the United States could protect its national security with drone strikes and otherwise leave the troubled nations to fend for themselves.
What we are relearning is that 9/11-style attacks against U.S. territory, while a continuing worry, are not the only threat from failed states. In an interconnected world, diseases, weapons, population flows — these cannot be fended off by gunboats and barbed wire. The United States need not land the Marines and enforce the peace in every country at risk, the option Mr. Obama often presents as the only alternative to abdication. The right mix of policies will include foreign aid, training and security assistance and will differ in each situation; outsiders can’t solve every problem. But the thousands of desperate people making their way across the Mediterranean Sea, sometimes with tragic results, are a reminder that outsiders can’t ignore every problem, either.
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