It took the photograph of a drowned three-year-old, face down in the sand, to wake the world up.
Yet little Aylan was not the only refugee killed by the journey across the Mediterranean—in fact, 2,600 people have died trying to cross into Europe by sea. Once on land, life remains precarious for displaced Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis, and other fleeing migrants. Just days before Aylan’s body washed onto Turkish shores, a tiny two-year-old was found suffocated in the back of a smuggler’s truck abandoned on an Austrian highway. This past weekend, two dozen West Africans were found dead near the Algerian border after becoming lost in a sandstorm.
For those refugees who survive the journey, some wish they had not. The vast majority of the more than four million Syrian registered refugees are living on just a few dollars a day, running short on food, water, and shelter, with little hope for the future.
Boats of asylum-seekers have been arriving on the shores of Europe all summer as part of an escalating crisis of displacement, violence, and instability in the Middle East.
Just to be clear, not all of these refugees have yet been formally designated as such by the United Nations. The UN has registered more than four million Syrians as refugees, most of whom are in nearby countries. However, hundreds of thousands more Syrians have fled violence to seek protection in Europe.
Under the Refugee Convention, countries cannot deport people who are likely to be persecuted or tortured back to their home countries. There is a distinction, though, between a “refugee” and an “asylum-seeker.” “Refugees” are identified in United Nations camps and then resettled globally (although resettlement takes years, sometimes even a decade or more). “Asylum seekers,” on the other hand, make the journey to a country of their own choosing and then ask for protection. Both asylum-seekers and refugees must meet minimum definitions of facing persecution or torture in order to receive protection.
Current European Union rules complicate where asylum-seekers can ask for protection in Europe. Under the [European Union’s] Dublin system, fleeing migrants generally must seek asylum in the first country they enter. This rule has created long delays and unnecessary detention for migrants, and great pressure on southern European countries that receive the most migrants and have the fewest resources. Germany has temporarily stopped following the Dublin system for Syrian refugees and is accepting their asylum applications. European leaders are currently meeting to decide how to respond.
Europe, and the rest of the world, is now at a crossroads and must decide how to deal with mass displacement and migration. The refugee and resettlement infrastructure is at a breaking point. A staggering 60 million people are currently displaced worldwide, having fled their homes because of persecution and war. Even more alarming, half of this number are children. As the refugee system slows to a halt, people languish in camps for years, and more desperate migrants begin to flee to countries farther away to ask for asylum.
So far, the global response has been dismal. Earlier in the summer, instead of addressing the humanitarian crisis directly, European leaders initially discussed ways to crack down on smuggling from Libya. Stopping smugglers doesn’t address the root causes of migration, nor the desperate needs of those forced to flee.
Many political leaders stoked rising nationalism and xenophobia by depicting migrants as dangerous Muslims who would overwhelm them. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron balked at taking any asylum seekers arriving on the Continent. Outside of Europe, political leadership failed too. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott pledged to turn around boats of migrants as they enter Australian waters, even as he faces scrutiny over allegations that his administration paid smugglers to turn back an intercepted Indonesian boat. Suggestions by US Senate Democrats over the summer to drastically increase the number of Syrian refugees accepted in the coming year have been largely ignored.
Yet there are signs of change. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Fran?ois Hollande of France issued a joint statement calling for “a permanent and obligatory mechanism” to divide refugees among the EU’s 28 member states. Britain’s Cameron has now pledged to take in thousands of Syrian refugees, and Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said Austria would now accept the refugees who have been stuck in Budapest.
What else must happen to address the current crisis? The EU should admit 200,000 asylum-seekers fleeing conflict zones as directed by the United Nations. They must also pledge assistance to bolster reception centers in southern countries such as Greece, Hungary, and Italy to create infrastructure for receiving asylum seekers.
However, this is not just a European problem. The world’s attention has been grabbed as wealthier EU nations grapple with the influx of migrants, but in fact most displaced persons are in poorer countries closer to the conflict. One in three people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee.
Countries across the globe must fund the UN’s Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan?to support the urgent needs of displaced Syrians who are mostly in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Currently the plan remains at only one third of needed funding, leaving the poorest countries that house the most refugees vastly under-resourced and leaving migrants more desperate by the day.
The United States, which has admitted only a handful of Syrian refugees in the past few years, should raise the refugee ceiling to admit 65,000 Syrians, as suggested by the International Rescue Committee. At the same time, the United States must make our refugee admission process more efficient, trimming years-long background checks so that migrants do not languish in camps or are forced to seek protection in other countries. We must also contribute, along with the European Union, to supporting current the needs of the countries that bear the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis.
Make no mistake—this is a global crisis that demands a global answer. If we do not move, then more refugees—including babies and toddlers—will continue to wash up along European shores.
Laila Hlass is a School of Law clinical associate professor and director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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