Child refugees from Syria. Oxfam International/Flickr

A Duty to Help the Refugees

A decade ago, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the “responsibility to protect” populations subject to mass atrocity crimes. Whether or not the decision not to intervene militarily in Syria is justified, the world's hands-off approach should not extend to the many millions now seeking refuge from the violence.

NEW YORK – I owe my life to the readiness of the British authorities to accept me as an infant refugee from Nazi Germany. My parents and I got out of Berlin in August 1939, just before the start of the war, to join my ten-year-old sister Esther, who had, along with about 10,000 other children, gone to England months earlier in what is known as the Kindertransport.

What the British did for us, the extraordinary generosity they showed refugees like me during those difficult war years, stood out. Indeed, the eight years I spent in England as a child made me a lifelong Anglophile, not to mention a proponent of kindness and magnanimity for those fleeing persecution. Disappointingly, the spirit manifested by Britons in that era has not been reflected in the policies of British Prime Minister David Cameron – or those of many of his European counterparts.

So far, the United Kingdom has accepted only a relatively small number of refugees from the Middle East. Only since he began to feel pressure from the British public – who have been deeply affected by images of those fleeing persecution, especially the photo of the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy, washed up on a beach – has Cameron’s stance begun to change. Still, the UK and other European countries must do much more to protect the desperate refugees seeking safe haven.

To be sure, some countries – namely, Sweden, Germany, and Switzerland – have responded to the influx by upholding humane values. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in her customary prudent and deliberate manner, has emerged as the most effective champion of those values, making it clearer than ever before that demonstrating respect and dignity for all is a core principle of the European Union. And European interior ministers have finally agreed to a plan to relocate 120,000 migrants across the EU over the next two years, with each country meeting an imposed quota.

But other European countries – in particular, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia – staunchly oppose the quota agreement, part of a generally hostile stance that aggravates the refugees’ hardship. One recalls the reluctance on the part of the Dutch and the Belgians even to issue transit visas to refugees like me attempting to reach England from Germany during World War II, for fear that we would remain in their countries.

The fact is that many in Central and Eastern Europe benefited from the generosity of others when crises in their own countries forced them to flee. When Soviet troops crushed the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, some 200,000 Hungarians fled their country. Many Czechs and Slovaks escaped to the West after the Communist takeover in 1948, and many more after the invasion by Warsaw Pact armies ended the Prague Spring in 1968. More recently, Central and Eastern European countries have reaped significant economic benefits from the free movement of their citizens within the EU.

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Hungary’s stated aim of maintaining Europe’s Christian character, echoed in declarations by Poland and Slovakia that they would accept only Christian refugees, is particularly perverse. These countries’ concept of Christianity, unlike that of Pope Francis, seems to exclude a commitment to Christian charity. This stance is unacceptable.

Of course, while many thousands of Syrian and Iraqi asylum-seekers are now flooding into Europe, the crisis is not solely a European problem. Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey have already accepted much larger numbers of refugees, despite the serious strain this is putting on their economies and societies.

Meanwhile, wealthy countries like the United States, Canada, and the Gulf monarchies have largely closed their doors to the refugees, just as the US closed its doors to all but a tiny number of the Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. These countries must, at the very least, increase significantly their financial assistance to the countries that have taken on the heaviest burdens.

The US has an extra responsibility to help. As everyone now knows, and as many suspected at the time, the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was based on false pretenses. While it is impossible to know to what extent that colossal blunder, with all its hubris and dissimulation, contributed to today’s turmoil, we know that it played a part. Add to this responsibility the moral imperative and legal obligation to help those fleeing violence and persecution, and it is clear that the US should not only offer vastly increased assistance to the countries accommodating large numbers of refugees, but also accept larger numbers of refugees itself.

A decade ago, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the “responsibility to protect” populations from mass atrocity crimes – protection that, in extreme cases, could take the form of military intervention. But the unintended outcomes produced by efforts to implement the “R2P” doctrine – most notably, in Libya in 2011 – have led countries largely to abandon their responsibility. As a result, the horrendous war in Syria has endured for nearly five years with no intervention by those who have the military capacity to limit, if not end, the carnage.

Whether or not non-intervention is justified, the world’s hands-off approach should not extend to the many millions of civilian victims who, like my family in 1939, have no choice but to seek refuge outside their home country. The least the rest of us can do is welcome them.