Lessons for dealing with today’s migrant crisis from the last one

September 10, 2015
A  woman from Syria feeds her baby at a refugee centre in Hamm

A woman from Syria feeds her baby at a refugee centre in Hamm, Germany, September 7, 2015. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender

We have been here before. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing in rickety boats, many of whom perish at sea as regional governments avoid search and rescue efforts in fear of their “pull factor.” Conditions at arrival made unwelcoming in order to deter others from attempting the journey. Still people continue to come.

In the two decades following the United States’ withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, three million people fled the communist regimes of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. More than one million were boat people.

A different sea and a different time, but the Indochinese refugee crisis has lessons to offer for today’s Syrian exodus. Refugees are crossing the Mediterranean in dinghies, fishing boats and even steel-hulled ships, and struggling through southern and eastern Europe on foot, bicycles, buses and trains. They follow the same migration routes as asylum seekers from other nasty parts of the world, as well as economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. According to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, Syrian refugees account for 53 percent of the nearly 400,000 illegal arrivals by sea to Europe so far in 2015.

The Indochinese refugee crisis was resolved in great part through resettlement, agreed to and executed by a broad coalition of countries. Like today, it took media attention on the countless tragedies at sea — coupled with serious political backlash and humanitarian crisis in host states such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia — before governments overcame their urge to pass the buck and look away.

Overcome it, though, they did. During an 18-month period beginning in January 1979, the world, led by the United States, resettled 450,000 Indochinese refugees. By the late 1990s, one million had begun new lives in the United States, 400,000 of whom were boat people. Large numbers of refugees went to France, Canada, Australia, and other countries as part of the resettlement agreement dubbed “Open shores for open doors.”

There are many modern-day examples of large-scale refugee resettlement. Hungarians fleeing after the 1956 uprising, and Kosovo-Albanians “ethnically cleansed” during the 1999 Kosovo war, benefitted from swift, organized resettlement of a significant proportion of the refugees in order to alleviate the humanitarian and security concerns of countries of first asylum. Between April and June 1999, NATO airlifted 86,783 Kosovo Albanians to 30 different countries, mostly in Europe and North America.

But times have changed. Faced with rising and unpredictable numbers of asylum seekers arriving directly at their door, most governments in the rich world have come to view resettlement as an avoidable burden rather than a useful tool of refugee protection.

Only a tiny fraction of the world’s refugees today are resettled, while vast refugee populations languish for years and decades in refugee camps, such as the Dadaab settlements for Somali refugees in Kenya, and Zaatari, home to around 80,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan.

There are some good arguments against resettlement. The ideal is, of course, that refugees should one day return to their home countries. Until that day, it could be argued that they are best looked after close to their own country, due to cultural and social affinities, for cost reasons, and because proximity would make them better able to judge when it is safe to repatriate.

Sometimes, though, large-scale resettlement is necessary. There is no end in sight to the Syrian conflict. The resettlement of a relatively small, but significant proportion of Syrian refugees would alleviate the chaotic scenes played out across Europe. It would help stabilize and support Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, all creaking under the pressure of the refugee influx. And it would reaffirm the principle, established after the horrible failings of World War Two, that all states have a joint responsibility to provide refuge for people fleeing war and persecution.

There are today over four million Syrian refugees worldwide. Over 90 percent have gone no further than just across the border. Turkey hosts 1.9 million refugees, Lebanon 1.1 million — a quarter of the country’s population — and Jordan is home to 630,000 Syrians.

Until this year, because it was locally contained, it was possible for the rest of the world to pay little attention to the unfolding refugee crisis. Most fleeing Syrians arrived with some savings with which to pay rent and an education that could, with luck, win them a job. Others had the option of getting food and health care in a refugee camp.

But the war is now in its fifth year. There are many more refugees, they are less welcome in their host states, those refugees who had savings have depleted them, and there is less humanitarian aid available per refugee in need. The UN has received 37 percent of the funds needed for the 2015 humanitarian program for Syria’s displaced: money that goes to run refugee camps, and to provide food or food vouchers, health care and education both within the camps and to the many more who have settled in urban areas such as Jordan’s capital, Amman. UNHCR’s budget is 10 percent lower than last year, leaving the High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, to declare that “we are broke.”

Refugees themselves, having used up their savings, are getting into crippling debt. Their rent and costs of living in Syria’s neighboring states have increased dramatically in the past year. A recent study by UNHCR showed that 70 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are now living far below the poverty line.

As needs have risen, the humanitarian system has not been able to cope. The World Food Programme just announced to 229,000 refugees in Jordan that they would no longer receive food vouchers due to funding cuts. At least 700,000 Syrian refugee children are going without an education, according to UNHCR.

But there is no safe and legal way for a Syrian refugee to travel to Europe — or to any other part of the world, for that matter. They have to resort to the perilous aid of people smugglers and, as a result, are transformed from refugees to “illegal immigrants.”

Studies of Vietnamese refugees resettled in the United States show that those who had experienced traumatic and dangerous journeys by boat found it harder to integrate into their new, “normal” lives than those who had benefited from the Orderly Departure Program. For everyone’s sake, then, Syrian refugees need safe and legal ways to travel to countries where they can restart their lives and educate their children.

We need a comprehensive resettlement program for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. Not for all of Syria’s four million refugees, but as a safety valve both for host countries and refugees, coupled with stronger economic and political support to the states at the frontline of this humanitarian disaster. You cannot cut food rations in Jordan and wonder why people are leaving to seek sanctuary further afield.

For such a resettlement program to work, it will take serious negotiations between the frontline states and a broad coalition of resettlement states. The Syrian refugee crisis is not a European problem. The United States, Canada, Australia and other members of the rich world need to step up. The Gulf States need to wake up to their moral obligation.

Germany has in recent days become a shining beacon of hope and decency for Syrian refugees. The governments of the UK, France, Australia and a smattering of other countries suggest they will take in somewhat larger refugee quotas. This is a step in the right direction, but unilateral and piecemeal announcements will not do the trick. We need a giant show of global solidarity and concerted action. It has been done before. The recent groundswell of sympathy for Syria’s displaced means it can be done again.






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Incisive tweet last night showing a caption of starving children in Africa. The comment was sorry guys cant help you as we need to help !! then showing a picture of well dressed people moving to Europe for a better life. My point is do all successful countries in the world send ships and planes to move millions of people to a better life. With all the social problems this will present in the countries accepting them or do we sort out the problems within the nations that people belong too. The answer I feel is a combination of both. But will politicians on the world stage stop posturing and using these countries as political footballs and resolve the issue.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

1. Vietnamese posed minimal terrorist threat.
2. Vietnamese resettlement programs can hardly be described as a success, with minimal integration for most into their new host populations.
3. Every crime committed by an immigrant is one that could have been avoided.

Posted by Het_Russ | Report as abusive

I believe that before 20 years are up, there will be sectarian Sunni/Shia/Wahabi/IS/Tribal gun battles raging in the streets of Europe with AK47s and RPGs.

After people secure housing and food, they go back to their religious/tribal hatred and killing.

Posted by UgoneHearMe | Report as abusive

Wow! What a great gesture from Obama, 10000! Indeed, that’s a joke, yes? Tell me when I should start laughing.

Posted by WicurP | Report as abusive

“Germany has in recent days become a shining beacon of hope and decency for Syrian refugees.”

Firstly many are not Syrian at all. Secondly, Germany will be remembered for being amazing generous with other people’s tax money. Thirdly, since when does Germany get to invite hundreds of thousand of Muslims into Europe on behalf of the rest of Europe? Did people in Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, France, UK etc etc vote for Merkel to control all of Europe’s immigration policy?

Posted by evilhippo | Report as abusive