Europe, US Have the History and Experience to Handle Current Refugee 'Crisis'

Horrific images of refugees fleeing violence and human rights abuses in Syria and other countries have spurred some European nations to open their previously restricted borders. However, a Duke refugee expert says the crisis “shows no signs of stopping.”

“The images over the past month make it hard to deny the historical parallels this refugee emergency has to the humanitarian crisis of World War II,” says Suzanne Shanahan, who directs the Kenan Refugee Resettlement Project at Duke. “Now as then, the question of moral responsibility is undeniable. The hope is that the international response will, in this instance, be far less equivocal.

“To label those fleeing civil unrest in Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq and Syria ‘migrants’ is cynical rhetoric that both criminalizes their behavior and denies the protections they are owed in international law,” Shanahan added.

“Those fleeing civil war and persecution are not migrants illegally crossing borders, but refugees with defined rights -- recognized by most of the world’s nations -- to seek protection from suffering and oppression. Fatalities at sea and on land during these perilous journeys are not then the unfortunate, but predictable consequence of illegal acts,” she said. “They are, instead, evidence of an international failure to uphold our own deepest values and legal commitments.”

Shanahan is co-director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics and director of the Institute’s Refugee Project. Launched in 2010, the community-based research project works with Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Egypt and Jordan and helps refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Bhutan and Vietnam settle in North Carolina.

She noted the burden the 4 million registered refugees have placed on the five Middle Eastern countries that host the largest refugee camps. More than half of the Syrian population has fled their homes since that country’s conflict began in 2011, and refugees are also pouring into Europe from Iraq, Libya and other countries.

Many of these refugees will never be able to return home. Shanahan said European countries and the United States must take leadership to alleviate the burden of the countries hosting the refugees and to offer a future for a generation of refugees who now have little hope.

“Resettling refugees is a challenge for both refugees and receiving countries. However, both Europe and the United States can draw on 80 years of resettlement experience,” Shanahan said.  “In North Carolina, I have found that with proper community support, refugees are often able to quickly and successfully rebuild their lives as economically self-sufficient, politically engaged American citizens.”

“Germany and Sweden are now expected to resettle refugees amounting to 1 percent of their total population. Surely, then, the U.S. can take in at least 65,000 Syrians -- a mere two-tenths of a percent of our total population.”

“Managing the flow of refugees across the Mediterranean is a Herculean task. Thousands of new refugees arrive daily. But the challenge cannot be left to those countries least able to manage it. Coordinated international efforts are essential. The moral and legal responsibility is a shared one.”