Let’s start with the heartwarming before we get to the truly heartbreaking.
That’s the sight of ordinary citizens, the responsible media, and generous governments all opening their arms to welcome a modern, yet biblical tide of humanity, fleeing war and persecution to safety here in Europe.
I began last week in Paris where French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to take in more than 20,000 refugees each over the next few years. It’s a start, but not huge when you consider Germany has pledged billions of dollars and says it will take half a million refugees every year for the next several years.
For me, one picture spoke volumes: Splashed across the front of the International New York Times, ordinary German citizens donating shoes all lined up and neatly marked at a train station for the kids, for the families, indeed for anyone in need after such a long march to freedom.
Sweden and Austria too are showing great generosity. From Vienna, President Heinz Fisher told me it’s their moral duty.
Now for the heartbreaking: As we speak, evidence that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and ISIS now are using chemical weapons, barrel bombs full of poison chlorine gas against Syrians, even after the U.S. and Russia supposedly got President Bashar al-Assad to give up his chemical stockpile two years ago. And we wonder why they are fleeing?
Four and a half years of war has killed more than 200,000, displaced at least eight million inside the country, and sent more than four million fleeing to camps in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, just across the border.
But these countries are now bursting at the seams, and the U.N. says it can’t even raise half the funds it needs to help shelter and feed them. The World Food Program has again had to suspend food vouchers for refugees in Jordan. And we wonder why they are fleeing west?
The big powers fall short in Syria
And, we must ask, why are some of their closest and richest Gulf neighbors shunning their brethren? Amnesty International says: “Gulf countries including Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees.” Never mind their passionate pleas for Syrian victims and their funding of various militant groups that have fueled the war and sent desperate Syrians fleeing for their lives. Reports say the Gulf states could house up to two million refugees if they chose to.
They have contributed money. According to the UNHCR, Kuwait has given $101.9 million; Saudi Arabia $2.7 million; Qatar $2.5 million; the UAE $2.2 million. But surely that’s a drop in the ocean considering their means, and the refugees’ massive needs.
The Israeli government said no too — although some Holocaust survivors said their country, of all countries, should understand and do their share for these Syrian refugees fleeing grotesque crimes against humanity.
And what about the United States, or even Canada? Countries with big hearts, deep pockets and a habit of projecting their humanitarian values, unwilling to actually help end the war that would stop this exodus. The U.S. has only accepted fewer than 1,500 Syrian asylum seekers over the course of the war.
But by the end of the week, Washington had also bowed to the pressure of human need. Now the Obama administration says it will take 10,000 Syrian refugees … but next year.
Of course it’s not enough; nothing will be enough to stop this unless the war ends. Again this week, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated the painfully and shamefully obvious when he acknowledged that the big powers sitting around the Security Council are still failing in Syria.
Few people want to leave their homes, or their land. I covered the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo that led to the last major refugee crisis to hit Europe during the 1990s.
When the West successfully intervened to end those wars, most returned. Most who stayed were a tribute to their adopted countries, as refugees have been throughout history.