16 Million Refugees Are Not Some Other Country’s Problem

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

Item: Two Eritrean refugees who reached Israel by crossing the Sinai desert went to court Thursday, asking for an injunction preventing the government from deporting them to Rwanda. The policy of forced deportation is new, but a recent report by Israeli refugee-rights organizations shows that in case after case, Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers who supposedly left voluntarily in 2013-2014 did so under pressure, including threats of indefinite detention. Those sent to Rwanda were in turn expelled by authorities there almost immediately. Others were sent back to Sudan, where some were imprisoned and tortured for the crime of visiting an enemy state—Israel. Dozens of refugees who “voluntarily” left Israel for Africa are now trying to reach Europe: by land to Libya, then across the Mediterranean on smugglers’ boats.

Item: An Australian lawyer has filed suit against that country’s government to keep it from returning the family of a five-year-old Iranian refugee girl from a detention center in Darwin, on Australia’s northern coast, to the island country of Nauru—a speck of land halfway to Hawaii. Australia pays Nauru to take boat people caught at sea while trying to reach Australia. The girl’s family was brought to Darwin because her father needed medical treatment there.  She is suffering post-traumatic stress from the time she has already spent in a detention camp on the island.

Item: When a smuggler’s boat crashed against rocks on the shoreline of the Greek island of Rhodes last week, a Greek soldier who happened to be nearby plunged into the water and singlehandedly saved 20 people from the sea. The boat was carrying 93 people, including refugees from Eritrea and Syria. Most made it there safely, but at least three drowned—a small addition to the toll of 1,750 or more boat people who have died trying to reach Europe this year. The worst single disaster took place two weeks ago, when a ship sailing from Libya sank, taking an estimated 800 or more people to their deaths. At an emergency E.U. summit meeting last week, leaders decided to triple funding for the European coastal patrol and make plans for fighting smuggling rings. In short, they aimed at keeping migrants, including asylum-seekers, from European shores.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said several Royal Navy vessels would join the naval operation—while stressing that migrants saved from the sea would likely be taken to the nearest country rather than getting a chance at asylum in Britain. No surprise: Both Cameron and his challenger in the upcoming British election, Labor Party leader Ed Miliband, have promised to reduce immigration. Miliband himself is a symbol of the contribution that refugees of other times have made to Britain: His father and grandfather, as Jews fleeing Belgium, were given asylum in 1940.

Item: The United States accepts about 70,000 refugees a year for permanent resettlement, selected from applicants around the world. Last year, says Alexander Betts, head of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, the United States decided to give 7,000 spots to Syrian refugees. To put that in perspective: 10 million Syrians have fled their homes during the civil war, and about 3 million of those have reached other countries, thereby falling under the usual formal definition of refugees. (The rest are “internally displaced.”) One quarter of the population of Lebanon today is Syrian refugees, Betts says—as is over half the number of school-age children.

I began this list with Israel because that’s where I live, and I’m used to looking at the refugee issue as a local one, in terms of the callousness of my own government. That’s a reasonable place for the citizen of any country to begin. I ended the list with the United States because its resettlement program is the largest of any country in the world, according to Betts. And that only shows how inadequate the developed world’s response is to a crisis that is not at all local, except in the sense that the citizens of many countries should be pressing their own governments to take an entirely different approach to it. …

Read the rest here.