The World’s Obligation to Refugees

There are iconic photographs that capture pain and tragedy in a way that even the most staggering statistics cannot.

Often, they are of children. A small Jewish boy, frightened eyes downcast and hands raised before Nazi troops after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943. A young Vietnamese girl fleeing in terror after a napalm attack. This past week saw another photograph added to the horrible list: a 3-year-old Kurdish Syrian boy in a red shirt and black shoes, face-down on a Turkish beach, drowned during his family’s attempt to escape the Syrian war and make their way to Western Europe. His mother and brother died en route as well.

The staggering statistics are here too. It is estimated that over the past four years, more than four million Syrians have been forced out of the country by its civil war. And migrants are streaming into Europe from Africa and Afghanistan as well. According to the European Union’s border agency, some 340,000 migrants crossed its borders in the first seven months of 2015; in July, the figure was an astonishing 107,500 people.

Over the weekend, busloads of exhausted migrants arrived at the Austrian border town of Nickelsdorf from Hungary, where thousands had been trapped for days after the Hungarian authorities had tried to stanch the flow of refugees through their territory. Trains that would have carried refugees on to the frontier with Austria were halted and thousands took shelter in a squalid encampment near a train station in Budapest, the Hungarian capital.

After coming under heavy pressure from human rights groups, after protracted negotiations with Germany and Austria, Hungary suddenly reversed course and provided buses to take the refugees to the border.

They were welcomed by citizens with food and water, and by the Austrian Red Cross, which provided medical supplies and blankets. Thousands of refugees have crossed into Austria of late, many of them intent on moving on to Germany, which recorded the arrival of 100,000 migrants last month alone.

By European Union law, Germany has a right to deport Syrians back to the first European Union nation they entered, but it has waived that privilege.

“The fundamental right to asylum does not have a limitation,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the German media on Shabbos. “As a strong, economically healthy country, we have the strength to do what is necessary.”

And many German citizens agree, as a crowd turned out to welcome buses bringing refugees, and offered the exhausted and hungry migrants food. Asked why he came out to greet the refugees, one German man said, “[Because] we caused so much suffering many years ago during the war, when we invaded other nations and did many horrible things. Now it is our time to heal those who suffer.”

At the same time, the neo-Nazi German far-right has registered its own feelings, in the form of arson attacks targeting centers and homes for refugees.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has raised the alarm over the continent’s “Christian identity” being put at risk, and is blaming Germany for effectively enticing more and more refugees to make risky trips from the Middle East, Africa and Asia into Europe.

But the flow of refugees will continue, no matter what. Welcoming them and providing for their needs will surely serve civilized nations better than marginalizing them.

It is striking that although the majority of refugees are Muslims, the Arab world has offered them no refuge at all.

“Six Gulf countries,” according to Amnesty International, “Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain, have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees.”

Given those countries’ relative proximity to Syria, as well as their large military budgets, high standards of living and, at least in the case of the UAE, a record of extending citizenship to immigrants from other Arab nations, that is a striking and salient fact.

What’s more, elements within Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait have played roles in funding and arming various Islamist factions fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — the very civil war that has created the surge of Syrian refugees.

Like European countries, Saudi Arabia and its neighbors also have fears over the impact that a wave of refugees finding haven in their countries would have. But the current collective Gulf outlay for aiding (not resettling) Syrian refugees amounts to under $1 billion; the U.S. has given four times that sum.

The long-term solution to the influx of refugees is something that will have to be grappled with by European nations. And by other industrialized nations as well, including the United States.

As Jews, many of us with parents and grandparents who were once refugees themselves, we can well recognize the daunting situation faced by those fleeing war and persecution. We should see the absorption of refugees, no matter their religion, not as an evil but as an opportunity. While it is vital that careful screening of the migrants is undertaken to weed out those who are affiliated with terror groups or would otherwise become a danger to their host countries, we must remember that the overwhelming majority of these refugees are peaceful individuals fleeing war and mayhem.

The order of the moment, though, is not the ultimate settlement of the mass of migrants.  It is providing the needy with food, water and shelter. To that end, all nations should do all that they can.