The United Nations estimates that 20 million refugees have been forced to leave their country. Another 40 million people are internally displaced inside war zones. This represents the largest movement of people since World War II. Numbers that big are hard to process, so consider this number: Since September, two children have drowned every day on average trying to cross the Mediterranean, according to UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency.
Syria's pre-war population was 22.6 million people, and more than half of those people have been displaced—more than 7 million internally displaced, more than 4.6 million in other countries. Russia's bombing campaign in Syria will ensure that the situation gets worse before it gets better. Additionally, people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, South Sudan, Eritrea and elsewhere have been forced to flee the brutality of insurgent groups or the repression of their governments. According to UNICEF, women and children make up 60 percent of those on the move.
Christopher Tidey, UNICEF’s communications specialist for media and emergencies, tells Worldpress.org, "The people are coming for a reason. They're coming because they really feel as if they don't have any other choice. The vast majority of people who are on the move are not doing it because they're coming to look for jobs. They're doing it to save their lives and to save the lives of their children."
In the midst of an unprecedented crisis, developing countries are shouldering most of the burden. Of the world's refugees, 86 percent are in developing countries. Of Syria's refugees, 95 percent are currently in only five countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. In Lebanon, one out of every five people is a Syrian refugee. Meanwhile, European countries have responded by lining their borders with razor wire. As Amnesty International writes, "E.U. governments are already spending billions on fences, high-tech surveillance and border guards."
The European Union was created in a spirit of open borders and solidarity. Now, put to the test, states are tightening borders and pointing fingers. Recent summits have failed to forge a viable, united plan of action. The €3 billion pledged to Turkey, which is hosting more than 3 million refugees, has not come through. And from Sweden to the Balkans, governments are pushing to seal the Greek-Macedonian border—as if Greece and its decimated economy can handle the 2,000 asylum seekers arriving on its shores daily, on top of the 800,000 who arrived last year. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the only head of state talking in terms of welcoming refugees instead of keeping them away, and because of that she is fighting members of her own party while also seeing her popularity plummet.
The first two things that students of international relations learn is that the international system is one of anarchy, and that states act out of self-interest. We are seeing both principles on full display.
In some cases, borders are being closed for certain nationalities. Tidey says, "You might end up in a place where only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans are allowed through, but you have people from Pakistan or South Sudan or Somalia and all the sudden they're stuck. That's happening increasingly. It's happening now at the border between Greece and Macedonia. That led to a real buildup at Greece's northern border, with 2,000 or 3,000 people who were stuck. It was grim. Some men from Iran sewed their mouths shut and were on hunger strike. … That's all the more reason why there needs to be a stronger level of international cooperation on this, and safe passage, especially for kids."
Prevalent in all this is a lack of empathy. In Hungary, refugees are being detained like criminals. Denmark passed a law that allows officials to confiscate assets over €1,340 from refugees, and to delay family reunification for three years. In the German town of Bautzen, people cheered when a refugee shelter went up in flames after a suspected arson attack. There were about 1,000 attacks on refugee shelters in Germany last year.
"It's a mixed bag," Tidey says. "When you speak to the refugees themselves, they will recount situations in some European countries when they've been treated incredibly well, with all kinds of humanity and support and kindness. And then you hear other stories of the exact opposite, which is upsetting. It's really a difficult thing."
Humanitarian agencies are working hard on the ground, often with limited aid and under circumstances that require improvisation. "I was in Berlin," Tidey says, "and you see a whole range of things. Tempelhof, the old airport, has been converted into a massive shelter for people who are coming through. What I saw is that authorities are really scrambling to do their best to make sure that that place is fit for purpose in terms of housing and basic services. But it's a race against numbers and a race against time, and it's not easy."
The U.N. Refugee Convention obligates states to offer protection to refugees. It also establishes the principle of shared responsibility, whereby the international community must work together so as not to force a few countries to carry the weight of a crisis alone. Expecting Greece and Turkey to keep the crisis out of sight and out of mind is neither moral nor realistic.
The United States has not taken in nearly its share of refugees, either. "America has given refuge to scarcely 2,000 Syrians. That's less than the number who arrive in Germany every day," Michael Ignatieff writes in the Boston Globe. "A big country would take in Muslim refugees and say to the terrorists in Islamic State: You won't scare us into not doing what's right. A big country would stand by Europe and its Middle Eastern allies and help them to cope."
Fear of terrorism is part of the reason the international community is not stepping up to the plate. In the wake of the Paris attacks in November, Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia announced that they would turn back migrants. And since the San Bernardino attack in December, U.S. lawmakers and governors have tried to make it impossible for foreigners to find asylum within U.S. borders, even though the terrorist in that case was born in the United States, and even though the screening process for refugees is intense and involves multiple agencies.
It's important to remember that U.S. foreign policy has contributed to instability in the Middle East, and therefore contributed to the refugee crisis. It's also important to remember that extremism grows out of extreme conditions. Hatred springs from alienation. The people who have been driven from their homes are not terrorists. They are normal people in a desperate situation. If we help them, we've made allies for life. If we treat them like they're less than human, some of them could go another way.
Some people fear refugees from conflict zones because they see them as a threat to their world. But there is only one world—not mine and yours and theirs. If we can avoid getting caught up in geography, perhaps we can let go of fear and inch toward empathy.
Joshua Pringle is a journalist and novelist living in Los Angeles. He has a master's degree in international relations from NYU and is the senior editor for Worldpress.org.