The refugee crises in Eritrea and Libya, in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, are staggering in their immensity. Current estimates suggest that conflict in Syria alone has generated more than 4 million people fleeing their war-torn and terrorized country.
These are (mostly) individuals and families properly described, not as immigrants nor as migrants, but as refugees.
An immigrant is someone who leaves one country or region to live in another as a planned effort (more or less) to better their circumstances or to be reunited with family and loved ones. A migrant is someone who moves from one location to another on a periodic basis, usually for economic opportunity.
A refugee, on the other hand, is someone who is fleeing imminent danger in the form of violence or other causes of great suffering and death. These are people who do not start moving because they imagine that there might be a better life somewhere in particular, but because they cannot imagine a worse life than what they are facing. Many will choose a destination, but their first priority is to get away, and secondarily to get somewhere in particular.
Four million Syrian refugees means 4 million men, women and children fleeing terror and violent death. Their preferred destinations vary. Their anxiety and suffering is essentially the same.
We’ve been compelled in the last few days to confront their desperation and their desperate losses. The limp body of a nicely dressed little boy who drowned on the perilous crossing from Turkey to Greece went global and viral . . . and caused reporters and anchors and viewers and listeners and readers to choke back tears.
Then we tried to turn the page. But like it or not, for millions of people, refugees and citizens of countries to which they are fleeing alike, the page will not turn.
If we are asked what we will do about it, we think first in terms of money . . . not a bad thing, to be sure. Millions of desperate people on the move will need temporary shelter. They’ll need food and water, shoes and clothing, medical care and sleeping bags. Money can help to provide those things . . . those of us who can give clearly should give.
Our friends in Europe are facing a flood of refugees stunningly more vast than the wave of children and youth who recently came to our southern border. Nations and leaders with the broadest humanitarian visions are struggling to regulate a flow which is more like a flood. They are striving to create some sense of order so as not to see the good they hope they can do washed away in the collapse of their systems for dealing with refugees.
Less generous nations and leaders are simply detaining refugees in squalid conditions, mobilizing troops . . . and building walls.
We can say that this isn’t our issue, that the problem is with the regimes of the Middle East (many of which are fueling the fighting, and many of which have closed their borders to these refugees). We can say that any solution lies with our European counterparts, not with us. There is some truth to both statements . . . but only some truth.
The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, framed the dilemma, and the outline of the path forward, brilliantly:
. . . we should not feel ashamed of our emotions. Compassion is one of the foundations of solidarity, but in order to be able to help others we ourselves must be pragmatic at the same time. We are now experiencing one of the most classical political dilemmas, that is a conflict between the protection of our borders and solidarity towards the refugees. Wise politics doesn’t mean having to choose one value over the other, but to reconcile the two to the degree possible. In this case pragmatism should be the First Commandment.”
We may not be facing this dilemma with the same intensity, nor the same immediacy. But we are not wrong to be troubled by what we see. Nor are we wrong to be concerned about how our own lives may be affected.
We only will be wrong . . . and foolish . . . if we simply try to turn the page.