Op-Ed: Refugee crisis demands U.S. action
Major humanitarian crises such as the spread of ISIS permeate the Middle East, and although the U.S. has sought solutions to these problems, we as a nation need a new policy to provide support to those affected by violence and poverty.
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a panel composed of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Nancy Lindborg, David Miliband head of the International Rescue Committee and Antoine Frem, mayor of Jounieh, Lebanon. The group attempted to de-mystify the underlying dynamics behind the crises facing the Middle East, as well as to help design a long-term U.S. policy for the region.
The event, co-hosted by the Atlantic Council and the United States Institute of Peace, prompted a concerned discussion about the issues facing the Middle East. Speakers urged citizens around the world to think about long term consequences.
Refugees have recently flooded Middle Eastern countries, such as Lebanon, in an effort to escape the violence in neighboring nations. However, this influx of refugees creates a problem for border states who cannot afford to suddenly provide care for millions more people. Frem highlighted key statistics during the panel that underscore the refugee issues in his country. Lebanon, an already overpopulated country, is now hosts 1.2 million refugees. If the United States were to accept refugees at the same ratio as Lebanon, we would take in 90 million additional people — adding about one quarter to our population.
The United States does not have the infrastructure to support 90 million new immigrants so suddenly. However, we have admitted far less than that into our country since the start of the war and seem hesitant to do much of anything else. If we truly purport to be the world’s foremost moral authority, we ought to do as much as we can to help those less fortunate, instead of standing by in bureaucratic limbo while thousands are killed and displaced.
Frem relayed to the audience that Lebanon has additional problems: they cannot elect a President or Parliament, they have $60 billion in debt and sectarian tensions abound. Public schools are overfilled even without refugee children, private hospitals are overflowing and NGO dispensaries do not suffice to fill the people’s needs. Frem warned of a “lost generation” because of the lack of action to help these refugees, saying an increase in refugees could lead to more terrorism down the road.
“Lebanon alone cannot solve the refugee crisis,” Frem said, explaining that the country cannot support everyone that wants to live in Lebanon. No country can. The refugees represent an international issue that requires an international solution. “Lebanon is not a country. It is a message,” Frem said to conclude his passionate speech.
We cannot stand by and watch as a country smaller than New Jersey adds a full 25 percent more people to its population with no place to put them. We cannot pretend that crises go away after the news media stops covering them. We cannot pretend that the world is a perfect place because in fact, there is so much that needs to be done to make this world livable for so much of our fellow men and women.
In an effort to end the violence in the Middle East and support the refugees, we need a completely new approach. Madeleine Albright addressed this new approach. She and U.S. policymakers understand that this approach needs to include both a humanitarian side and a political side. The political side is important because it involves other nations actually taking in refugees and supporting them, as Turkey, Lebanon and Greece are already doing.
As head of the IRC, Miliband travels all over the world to conflict areas. He said the European response has been “feeble,” and that this crisis threatens the European Union as well as the refugees. The IRC President warned of a “race to the bottom” among European nations until there is an effective refugee distribution system.
Miliband also spoke of a Syrian refugee he met who told him, “Aleppo is hell, I need to escape from hell.” While Aleppo, Syria may indeed be hell because of the ongoing civil war, oftentimes the refugee camps are their own kind of hell — a disorganized, unsanitary, live-life-in-limbo mess. The European Union, as well as other industrialized nations like the United States, should step up to the plate, fulfill their duty as rich nations and assist those refugees who need our help.
The humanitarian issues in the Middle East are so long-standing at this point that a total restructuring of the amount and type of aid needs to be discussed.
Manal Omar, the acting VP for for USIP’s Middle East and Africa Center, spoke about what she calls “donor fatigue,” the phenomenon of humanitarian crises being seen as temporary by donors, and aid groups therefore seeing donations drop drastically as soon as a crisis is no longer in the news.
People generally have short attention spans, which is why, for example, many started making fun of CNN for focusing so much on the MH370 air disaster. Even though the disappearance of the plane was truly a humanitarian catastrophe, people stopped caring after approximately a week. One could also look towards the rise of ISIS, which, while still in the news, now carries significantly less shock.
Donor fatigue leads to less motivation for people to help aid agencies working on the crisis. Aid groups need money for so many essentials: food, shelter, educational materials and more. Money has to come from somewhere, but donor fatigue unfortunately does exist, and is hard to combat.
Albright, Lindborg, Miliband and Frem raised questions during the panel that should rise to the top of the U.S. policy agenda. We must realize that without immediate action, violence and humanitarian crises will continue to emerge in the Middle East. We must also realize that these are not isolated incidents, and that each one of us has a responsibility to do our part.
Jackson Pincus is a Freshman in the School of International Service.